New York Rangers star Artemi Panarin is taking a leave of absence from the NHL team after allegations emerged in Russia that he beat up an 18-year-old girl in 2011.
Panarin is one of the few Russian athletes to have publicly criticised Vladimir Putin and his team suggested the assault allegations are a smear tactic to punish the player.
“Artemi vehemently and unequivocally denies any and all allegations in this fabricated story,” the Rangers said in a statement on Monday. “This is clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events.
“Artemi is obviously shaken and concerned and will take some time away from the team. The Rangers fully support Artemi and will work with him to identify the source of these unfounded allegations.”
Although Panarin lives in the United States he still has family in Russia.
Panarin recently posted the message “Freedom for Navalny” to Instagram in reference to Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition figure who was jailed earlier this month in what many saw as a sham trial.
Panarin, like Navalny, is a longtime critic of the Russian president. “The mistake in our society is treating [Putin] like a superhuman,” Panarin said in 2019. “He is a regular person, like us, and he is serving us… Yes, to be a president you have to be smart and enlightened, but our biggest mistake, among many, is thinking that we have nobody better than Vladimir Vladimirovich. This is nonsense. How many million people live here? No question there is someone better.”
In the same interview, Panarin said many in Russia would view him as a “foreign agent” for his views and also attacked his country’s progress under Putin.
“American cities are developing thanks to local taxes which stay in the state,” he said. “But here, a lot of money goes to Moscow, so people everywhere work for Moscow’s benefit. I always thought it’s unfair.”
Panarin’s stance is in stark contrast to Russia’s biggest hockey star, Alex Ovechkin, who has a close relationship with Putin, even founding a movement, PutinTeam, to support the president.
Putin is a hockey fan and has appeared in televised exhibition games alongside businessmen, politicians and former NHL stars. During an appearance in a 2019 game, the then 66-year-old scored at least eight goals against suspiciously pliant opponents.