The intent of the assault allegations levied against Artemi Panarin without a shred of supporting evidence or corroborating witnesses by his former KHL coach, Andrei Nazarov, in an interview with a Russian tabloid appears to have been to sully the reputation of the Rangers’ winger and to promote both a personal and political agenda, not to pursue justice.
Panarin “unequivocally and vehemently” has denied the charge that he punched an 18-year-old woman down to the floor in a hotel bar following a game on Dec. 11, 2011, as alleged by Nazarov. The former NHL winger also claimed that Latvian officials were bought off for $40,000 in euros after a criminal case had been opened.
Panarin issued his denial through a statement by the Rangers that described the story as “fabricated.”
“This is clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events,” the statement continued. “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 an outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime, last evidenced by his social media support of opposition leader Alexi Navalny, who was poisoned and is now serving a 32-month sentence for alleged probation violations that was handed down at the start of February.
A well-positioned source with knowledge of the political dynamic in Russia told The Post that this spurious attack against the 29-year-old native of Korniko was not a direct retaliatory governmental measure against Panarin but rather Nazarov going rogue.
It is believed Nazarov, who has been extremely critical of Panarin’s opposition to Putin, was attempting to curry favor with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and its First Vice President, Roman Rotenberg, whose family has close ties to Putin.
This is not tantamount to a woman leveling assault charges against a man 10 years after the fact. Those allegations would have to be taken seriously and independently investigated. This is different. There is no complainant. This is not a “He said, she said.” This instead appears to be a, “A third-party he with an agenda claimed, without proof.”
Indeed, Latvian journalist Aivis Kalnins reported that a spokesman for the hotel said that no such incident occurred. In addition, no player on the Vityaz club that had lost 2-0 that night to Dynamo has supported Nazarov’s claims.
Remember this, too: At the time of the alleged assault, Panarin was regarded as a run of the mill 20-year-old who had been passed over entirely by the NHL during two draft years. He was certainly not a high-profile athlete. As such, there’d have been little reason to engage in bribery and engineer a cover-up.
So here we are again, caught in the vortex of politics interacting with sports. Here is Panarin, who just about always appears to be the happiest man on the face of the Earth, taking a break from the game for an indeterminate amount of time after taking this punch to the gut.
If Panarin was an innocent before, and he is far too intelligent and perceptive to be labeled naïve, then he certainly is not now. The prospect of retaliation and retribution through different means has always existed, even if this attack against him appears to have been launched by a private citizen with an agenda and not through a coordinated effort directed by the Kremlin.
Nevertheless, Panarin is paying. So are the Rangers, who are losing their most dynamic, important, valuable and best player for an indefinite period of time. To suggest that the Blueshirts can’t afford to lose No. 10 qualifies as an award winner for understatement.
A Hart Trophy finalist a year ago who all but carried the club through the first half of 2019-20, Panarin elevated the Blueshirts in each of their recent victories over Philadelphia and Washington after having been sidelined for a pair with an unidentified injury. He is the straw that stirs the drink, and he only stirs it good.
He is, as well, universally popular within the room, as he was in the Chicago and Columbus rooms, where he split his first four NHL seasons playing for the Blackhawks and Blue Jackets before signing his seven-year, $81.5 million free-agent deal with the Rangers on July 1, 2019.
His popularity, his personality, his marquee stature, they do not absolve him from charges of wrongdoing. That is obvious. But something is very fishy about all of this. It does not meet the smell test.
An adversary seemingly motivated by a personal and political agenda has made incendiary charges without the support of evidence against Panarin. By the way, these sorts of things don’t only happen in Russia.