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Frank Seravalli

TSN Senior Hockey Reporter

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New York Rangers star Artemi Panarin took a surprising leave of absence from the team on Monday for personal reasons.

The Rangers said Monday that the 2019-20 Hart Trophy finalist will step away for an unspecified amount of time amid allegations in Russia of an assault in 2011 that the player vehemently denies.

A Russian news article on Monday quoted Andrei Nazarov, Panarin’s former KHL coach and a former NHL enforcer, who claimed Panarin struck an 18-year-old girl in Latvia in 2011.

Panarin, 29, has family in Russia and it is believed the reason for his leave is that there is a level of concern about retribution against them based on the allegations made against him.

“Artemi vehemently and unequivocally denies any and all allegations in this fabricated story,” the Rangers said in a statement Monday. “This clearly is 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.”

In a brief statement to the New York Post, the NHL said: “We are completely supportive of Artemi Panarin and the Rangers and will continue to monitor the situation.”

When asked about his teammate’s leave of absence on Monday, Rangers centre Ryan Strome defended Panarin’s character.

“We see him behind closed doors every day and the personality and the way he carries himself and his character and his attitude,” Strome told reporters. “He’s just an all-around unbelievable person. I think for us, just give him this time, give him the space, and whatever the timeline may be, we’ll welcome him back with more than open arms.”

Panarin has been an outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Last month, Panarin posted a photo on his Instagram account supporting Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, with the captain: “Freedom for Navalny.”

Navalny has been jailed in Moscow since mid-January despite demands for his release from the European Court of Human Rights.

Panarin first publicly criticized Putin in a 2019 YouTube interview that created shockwaves. It was in stark contrast to the loyalty shown to Putin by fellow NHL star Alex Ovechkin, who in 2017 announced a social-political movement “in the name of #PutinTeam.”

Putin is rarely criticized publicly by high-profile Russian-born celebrities and athletes. Panarin last represented the Russian Federation at the 2017 IIHF World Championship and also skated in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.

Nazarov, Panarin’s former coach who levied the allegation, has previously publicly attacked people in the hockey world who have questioned Russia’s way of life.

Nazarov advocated for the arrest of former NHL defenceman T.J. Galiardi in 2019 after Galiardi revealed an unflattering view of Nizhnekamsk, where Nazarov then coached in the KHL, during a podcast interview.

“Next time he comes to Russia, we’ll arrest him,” Nazarov reportedly said. “Let’s do 15 days at first. Put him in a cell without a toilet … Then he won’t badmouth Russia again.”

On Monday, Nazarov – who played 571 NHL games from 1994 through 2006 – claimed Panarin knocked an 18-year-old Latvian girl to the floor in 2011 with “several powerful blows,” according to a translation of the Russian newspaper story. He then alleged Panarin paid $40,000 (EUR) in cash for the police to “put the brakes on the case.”

Panarin, a native of Korkino, Russia, made his debut in the country’s top league in 2008 as a 17-year-old with KHL club Vityaz Chekhov, based in a Moscow suburb, a full 24-hour drive away from his hometown.

He played in the KHL for six more seasons, including stops in Kazan and St. Petersburg, before bursting onto the NHL scene as a free agent with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015-16 as a 24 year old. He won the Calder Trophy that season as rookie of the year with 77 points in 80 games.

Panarin was then dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2017 and signed a seven-year, $81.5 million deal as a free agent with the Rangers on July 1, 2019. He has racked up 433 points in 405 career NHL games.

Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli