New York Rangers star winger Artemi Panarin has been a critic of Vladimir Putin over the past few years. Last month, Panarin, a finalist for the NHL’s most valuable player last year, took to Instagram to support Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. For someone like Panarin, who still has family in Russia, this isn’t a throwaway social-media dunk. Hockey players are major stars in Russia, and the threat of retribution is real. Which is why it’s understandable that so few Russian NHLers speak out. (Though it’s less understandable why stars like Alex Ovechkin feel the need to champion the gangster.)
Today, the expected happened as Panarin’s former coach and Putin booster Andrei Nazarov – who was perhaps the first and only Russian-born goon in the NHL — told a Russian media outlet that the winger had assaulted an 18-year-old girl in Riga, Latvia, after a road game in 2011, and then paid her 40,000 Euros for her silence.
Panarin, who’s taken a leave of absence from the team, “vehemently and unequivocally denies any and all allegations in this fabricated story,” according to the Rangers. Panarin is almost surely being targeted by Kremlin allies. And having watched the Rangers’ pressers today, I get the distinct sense that it wasn’t the allegation that sidelined him, but rather the fact that he was working to get his family over to the United States. We’ll see.
It should be noted that Panarin’s former coach and accuser is not merely a Putin booster; he’s a complete maniac who’s attacked fans with hockey sticks and put his team doctor into the hospital, among other incidents. According to one report, Nazarov has called for players critical of Putin to be jailed. And, as of now, no record of the alleged decade-old assault has emerged, no former teammate has backed Nazarov’s story, the woman in question has not emerged, and no hotel worker remembers any such incident.
We should be careful when dismissing serious allegations, but nothing in Panarin’s history points to this kind of behavior, while everything points to a smear.