New York Rangers star Artemi Panarin, who took a leave of absence from the team after a Russian tabloid printed an uncorroborated story alleging he was in a physical altercation with a woman in Latvia almost a decade ago, said he doesn’t plan to address the situation until after the season is over.
“It’s probably not the time to discuss it right now,” Panarin said Monday during his first public comments since his absence. “I have nothing to hide. I will address everything after the season, but right now the focus is on the game and not these discussions.”
Panarin had previously denied the tabloid story’s veracity. The Rangers, in a statement, called the story “an intimidation tactic being used against [Panarin] for being outspoken on recent political events” in Russia.
In a January Instagram post, Panarin expressed his support for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a longtime critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin who rose to prominence in Russia’s political landscape with his relentless pursuit of fair elections.
Notably, Navalny’s political views do not end with election reform, however. He has also been a participant in the annual Russian March, a parade uniting Russian nationalist groups. On several documented occasions, he has described groups using derogatory terms and racist epithets as well.
The photo Panarin shared depicted Navalny and his family with the caption #свободунавальному, which translates to “Freedom for Navalny.” The hashtag had become popular after Navalny was arrested at a Moscow airport following five months spent in Germany recovering from a near-fatal poisoning at the hands of a Russian agent.
The man whose allegations were the foundation of the tabloid story, Andrei Nazarov, said he was motivated to speak about the alleged incident because he disagreed with Panarin’s repeated criticism of the Russian government. Panarin played for Nazarov with Vityaz Chekhov from 2010-2012.
“Artemi vehemently and unequivocally denies any and all allegations in this fabricated story,” the Rangers said in their statement following Panarin’s decision to take a leave of absence. “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.”
Panarin returned to practice in Boston on Wednesday after missing nine games, a stretch in which the Rangers went 4-5. He played his first game on Saturday, picking up an assist, and added three points in Monday’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.