The New York Rangers on Monday vigorously defended their winger Artemi Panarin, even as he took a leave of absence amid allegations that he hit a woman in a bar a decade ago.
Panarin, the Rangers’ top scorer this season, was accused by his former coach in the Russia-based K.H.L., Andrei Nazarov, of striking an 18-year-old woman in Latvia in 2011, knocking her to the floor. Nazarov further contended that Panarin escaped justice in the case by way of a bribe.
“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.”
Panarin has been critical of the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and supported the opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Nazarov, his former coach, has previously faulted him for that.
Panarin, 29, grew up in Korkino, 1,000 miles east of Moscow. After playing parts of seven seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League he joined the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015, and also played with the Columbus Blue Jackets before he signed with the Rangers as a free agent before the 2019-20 season. He is considered one of the best undrafted players in the N.H.L. and has added scoring punch his teams had lacked.
He has also drawn attention for his Instagram posts featuring his partner, Alisa, and their Jack Russell terrier.
Playing left wing on the first line this season, he leads the Rangers in points and assists, and is tied for the lead in goals with five. He also led the team in points and assists last season, his first with the club, and was named the team’s most valuable player.
“I think he no longer understands what’s right and what’s wrong,” Panarin said of Putin in 2019. “Psychologically, it’s not easy for him to judge the situation soberly. He has a lot of people who influence his decisions. But if everyone is walking around you for 20 years telling you what a great guy you are and how great a job you are doing, you will never see your mistakes.”
“Whatever happens, whatever the timeline, we’ll welcome him back with more than open arms,” his teammate Ryan Strome said of Panarin on Monday. “Everybody knows what he does for our team on the ice.”
“I think Bread knows how much we love him, how much we care for and how much we appreciate him,” Strome said. Panarin’s teammates call him Bread or the Breadman, a reference to the Panera bakery chain.
“It’s hard to overcome losing a player like him from a hockey standpoint,” Coach David Quinn said. “But we’ve got to find a way to do it.”
Allan Kreda contributed reporting.