- The Washington Times
Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Russian athletes competing abroad generally fall into one of two groups when it comes to Vladimir Putin. There are those, like the Washington Capitals’ own Alex Ovechkin, who openly embrace the longtime Russian president. Others who aren’t quite such fans of Putin figure maybe it’s best just to keep their mouths shut. 

Then, there’s Artemi Panarin.

The New York Rangers star is one of the few Russian athletes who’s shown a willingness to talk about repression in his home country, and his criticism of Putin may have made the 29-year-old a target for the Kremlin.

Panarin is defending himself against allegations published in a Russian tabloid last weekend in which a former Russian coach accused Panarin of beating up an 18-year-old girl at a hotel bar in Latvia a decade ago.

Panarin and the Rangers have firmly denied those allegations, going as far as stating the allegations were made because of Panarin’s anti-Putin viewpoints. The coach making the allegations, Andrei Nazarov, meanwhile, is a well-known supporter of Putin.

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 statement continued. “The Rangers fully support Artemi and will work with him to identify the source of these unfounded allegations.”

The New York Post interviewed four of Panarin’s former KHL teammates, and they said they don’t recall ever hearing of the allegations presented.

Panarin began his NHL career with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015, then moved onto the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2017. He earned a seven-year, $81.5 million contract with New York in 2019, and then made waves with an interview that summer covering a wide range of topics, including the state of Russia politically and Panarin’s views on Putin.

“I think he no longer understands what’s right and what’s wrong,” Panarin said in that interview. “ … What I say, I say for the people, to make sure there are changes. I am not an American agent. I have just seen how things work in another country and I want some things, like the rule of law, to be transplanted here.”

Panarin went further last month, when he posted on Instagram expressing his support for Putin’s political opponent Alexei Navalny, the leader of a reform movement in Russia.

Navalny almost died in August after he was poisoned with a nerve agent, and he says he was the subject of a government-ordered assassination attempt. Navalny returned to Russia in January and was immediately arrested.

“This is absolutely unprecedented in Russian sports,” Russian hockey reporter Slava Malamud told Sportsnet in 2019. “Among all the active athletes, people who are in the spotlight, it is completely and utterly unprecedented. I’ve never ever heard anyone even come close to anything like this. And if somebody did come close — or even remotely close to that — they would’ve backtracked the next day.”

But Panarin hasn’t backtracked, and he’s one of the few Russian athletes to make such a stand. Blackhawks defender Nikita Zadorov once joined Panarin in criticizing a Russian law seeking to give the government more control over the internet. Garry Kasparov, a former chess grandmaster, found himself exiled from the country for his criticism of the regime.

The voices of Putin’s dissenters are often drowned out by the high-profile support that comes from pro-Putin stars like Ovechkin

In 2017, as Putin prepared for another election, he received a major campaign endorsement from the Capitals mainstay. Ovechkin announced on Instagram he was starting a “social movement called Putin Team,” and while Ovechkin later clarified he wasn’t making a political statement, the winger said he has “always supported [Putin] openly.”

Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, chess grandmaster Sergey Karjakin and Olympic pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva all joined Ovechkin’s “Putin Team.” After a match between Lokomotiv Moscow and Turkish team Fenerbahce in 2016 — just months after Turkey shot down a Russian jet — midfielder Dmitri Tarasov pulled off his jersey to display a T-shirt with Putin’s likeness.  

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