When New York Rangers forward Artemi Panarin supported Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in an Instagram post last month, it probably didn’t occur to him that he might be inviting disruption into his life.
On Monday, Panarin announced he was taking a leave of absence to deal with an accusation by his former coach in the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda that he struck an 18-year-old woman in a Latvian hotel bar 10 years ago.
In a statement issued by the Rangers, Panarin vehemently denied the allegations, calling them a “fabricated story.” The New York Post interviewed three former players from the Chekhov Vityaz team who said they don’t have any memory of the event described in the accusation.
“This is clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events,” the Rangers said.
The timing and source of the accusation are peculiar.
“Anybody off the street would have a sense that this is very strange,” said former NHL player (1998-2001) Stu Grimson, a lawyer and an analyst for NHL Network. “This is very uncoincidental that these allegations are coming out against Panarin at a time when he has taken this position in support of the opposition in Russia.”
The accusation was made by former NHL player Andrei Nazarov, who was Panarin’s coach when the incident was said to have occurred. At the time, Panarin was a 20-year-old unheralded player on Chekhov Vityaz in the Kontinental Hockey League, Russia’s top professional hockey league. He had been passed over in the NHL draft and didn’t appear to have much of a future in the NHL.
Nazarov told a Russian media outlet that a criminal investigation was halted when “a sum of 40,000 Euro cash” was paid.
“(Nazarov) said the whole reason he is coming with this 10 years after the alleged event is that he hates (Panarin’s) politics and he wants to avenge,” said Slava Malamud, a former Russian sportswriter who read the original story in Russian. “He goes on to say that Panarin has a good living in New York City, living the easy life, criticizing (Vladimir) Putin. (Nazarov) said those kind of pronouncements lead to unrest in the streets of Russia. The motivation is political.”
Malamud now works as a high school math teacher in Maryland but is respected for his views on Russia, hockey and politics on social media. He still occasionally works as a freelance journalist.
Nazarov, 46, was drafted in the first round, 10th overall, by the San Jose Sharks in 1992 with the hope that he would develop into a scorer. At some point, Nazarov morphed into a tough guy, a player who primarily used his physical attributes (6-5, 230 pounds) to stay in the game. Nazarov had 222 penalty minutes for the Sharks in 1996-97 and 200 more for the Boston Bruins in 2000-01. He finished his 12-year NHL career with 53 goals and 1,409 penalty minutes in 571 games.
“He came back to Russia embittered,” Malamud said.
Malamud says Nazarov wanted to go into coaching, and he decided to draw attention to himself by making controversial statements to the media.
“His other big thing was that he was always trying to present himself as a Russian patriot,” Malamud said. “His idea was to contradict the narrative that the NHL is a better league than the KHL. (He said) Russian players are discriminated against there. The league is dirty. Funny business is happening.”
Nazarov’s approach worked as he became a KHL coach. According to Malamud, Nazarov maintained his reputation for being brash and nationalistic.
The NHL has 42 Russian players, and Panarin is the only one who’s consistently critical of the Russian government. Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin has been an outspoken supporter of Putin, even being part of a social media movement in 2017 called “Putin Team.”
Igor Lukes, a professor of history and international relations at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, said people sometimes show their loyalty to Putin by hurting his critics.
“(Panarin) stands out because he speaks critically of Putin,” Lukes said. “So they look for dirt on this man. That’s always the first stage.”
Lukes said if Panarin were a Putin supporter and been accused of hitting the woman, the same person accusing him now probably would be saying that Panarin was the victim of “a smear campaign.”
Konstantin Sonin, a distinguished professor at the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, said it’s doubtful Panarin was targeted by a “centralized campaign.”
“This seems like a private initiative by one person,” Sonin said.
He isn’t surprised that Panarin is the only Russian NHLer to be vocal in his political beliefs.
“For a Russian to be involved in politics is an unusual thing,” Sonin said. “I’m not surprised the other players are silent.”
NHL Players’ Association spokesperson Jonathan Weatherdon said the union is in contact with the player and his agent but had no other statement. The NHL has expressed support for Panarin and the Rangers and has started to gather facts about the story.
The then-Soviet Union started to allow some players to move to the NHL in 1989, with Sergei Pryakhin joining the Calgary Flames first. But some players, such as Alexander Mogilny (Buffalo Sabres) and Sergei Fedorov (Detroit Red Wings) took matters into their own hands by defecting to play in the NHL in 1989 and 1990, respectively.
Russian players were always said to have more difficult adjustments than other Europeans because the vast majority of Russians enter the NHL speaking no English.
Once the Iron Curtain fell, some Russians in the NHL were threatened by Soviet criminals. Their relatives were kidnapped if they didn’t pay ransoms.
In the 1990s, Lukes said, Russian organized crime extorted money from Russian players with threats of kidnappings or worse against family members back in their home country.
“There was considerable evidence that the FBI was looking into,” Lukes said. “But very often these investigations fizzled out because the alleged victim refused to cooperate.”
Former NHL player Jeremy Roenick was teammates with Russian defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky on the Arizona Coyotes in the 1990s, and he remembers hearing that Tverdovsky’s mother was kidnapped when he was playing for Anaheim. Tverdovsky’s mother was eventually released unharmed.
“The mafia was rampant back then in Russia and took every advantage to try to extort money from the Russian players,” said Roenick, who played from 1988-2009. “The Russian players have always had a tough situation, and it doesn’t help now that Putin is a big hockey fan. He wants the approval and support from the players he likes.”
Lukes said that Putin, in his memoirs, revealed that his discovery of sports changed the direction of his life.
“In order to popularize himself, he projects the image of an athlete,” Malamud said. “He does judo, he skis, he skates, he wants to be viewed as a macho man. … Sports for him will always have propaganda value.”
Today, Russians have to watch what they say because Putin has passionate followers who don’t appreciate criticism of the leader. Athletes are expected to support the government, Malamud said. In Russia, sports is an extension of foreign policy.
“Athletes are heroes of Russia, and (Putin) wants them to support his regime,” Roenick said. “If you don’t, you subject yourself to political hatred, to attacks and to not knowing whether you and your family are safe. That is what Panarin is going through now.”