New York Rangers forward Artemi Panarin has taken a leave of absence following the emergence of a story in Russia that claimed he had a physical altercation with an 18-year-old girl back in 2011 in Latvia.
Panarin has denied the allegations, which were raised in a Russian tabloid by Andrei Nazarov.
Nazarov is a former NHL enforcer. He coached Panarin in the KHL for Vityaz Podolsk during the 2010-2011 season, the time in which he alleges the assault occurred.
“Artemi vehemently and unequivocally denies any and all allegations in this fabricated story,” the Rangers said in a statement 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.”
According to the report, Nazarov spoke out about the alleged assault because of his disagreement with Panarin’s repeated criticism of the Russian government. Nazarov has been noted for his unbridled support for Russian president Vladimir Putin, once calling for the imprisonment of foreign players who criticized the establishment.
The 29-year-old has been outspoken in his criticisms of Putin on social media and has supported Russia’s currently imprisoned opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.
“I know there’s going to be a lot of questions on Artemi and we made a statement as an organization and there’s not much I can elaborate on that other than the fact that he’s someone we care an awful lot about and it goes way beyond hockey,” Rangers coach David Quinn said. “We’re here to support him. We’re here as a team. These guys care for each other on and off the ice.”
Panarin is in the second season of a seven-year contract with the Rangers. He leads the team in scoring with 18 points in 14 games.
The Rangers held practice Monday after news of the allegation broke. They’ve played two games without Panarin this season and both were losses, but they are currently on a two-game winning streak and sit sixth in the East Division.
New York will visit the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday.