One of the NHL’s top Russian hockey players broke ranks with his countrymen to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin in an interview published Thursday on a Russian language YouTube page.
Artemi Panarin, a 27-year-old left wing newly signed by the New York Rangers, decried the lack of freedom of expression in his home country, complained the nation was rife with “lawlessness” and said Russia had better people for the presidency than Putin, who has served as the country’s president or prime minister since 1999.
“In America, you have two four-year terms, and that’s it,” he said. “You can’t come back. You’ve done some good for your country, haven’t grown fat on anything, and you leave without a fuss, letting young blood in. This is what I think.”
“Yeah, I may look like a foreign agent right now, but it’s not like that,” Panarin added. “I think that the people who hush up the problems are more like foreign agents than those who talk about them. If I think about problems, I am coming from a positive place, I want to change something, to have people live better. I don’t want to see retirees begging. I saw a normal-looking grandma in the metro yesterday, singing for money.”
His statements were a break from the stances of many current and former Russian NHL players, who have either taken public stands to back Putin or have carefully avoided commenting on political affairs.
Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin is one of Putin’s most outspoken backers in the United States. He started a social media campaign, “Putin Team,” in 2017 to drum up support for the Russian leader ahead of the country’s elections, which Putin won with more than 75 percent of the vote.
“I’m certain that there are many of us that support Vladimir Putin,” Ovechkin wrote on Instagram, though Russian journalists have traced the campaign’s origin to a Kremlin-connected public relations firm. “Let’s unite and show everyone a strong and united Russia. Today, I want to announce a social movement in the name of Putin Team. Be a part of this team — to me it’s a privilege, it’s like the feeling of when you put on the jersey of the Russian team, knowing that the whole country is rooting for you.”
Ovechkin’s close relationship with Putin has continued in the years since. The hockey player has a home phone number for the president. Putin sent Ovechkin a wedding gift and sent a congratulatory telegram to be read at the reception since he could not attend.
Other NHL players have shown Putin great deference. Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin pledged support for “Putin Team.” Former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk reportedly returned to play professionally in Russia at Putin’s urging.
In annual recreational hockey games, Putin has taken the ice with Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov and Viacheslav Fetisov.
Panarin, who played the 2018-19 season with the Columbus Blue Jackets before signing a seven-year, $81.5 million free agent contract with the Rangers on July 1, said he used to support Putin but slowly changed his mind after moving to the United States during the hockey season. He lives in Saint Petersburg during the offseason.
He said he learned more about the geopolitical tension between the Western powers and Russia by watching opposition YouTube channels.
“I just understood what type of horror is going on here,” he said. “It’s enough for a person to just see the two sides and he will understand everything. You don’t even need to be super smart, just be open to another opinion, that’s all. I think that if I go and watch [state-sponsored] Channel One for 24 hours straight without tearing myself off the chair, I will go and say that the whole world is devils except for us. But that is impossible. There are normal people everywhere.
“Before, I was leaning towards that same atmosphere that is currently in our country: that everyone is attacking us, everyone is oppressing us. Now I know that there are good people [in America] who think well of us. There are political games. There are reasons why they impose sanctions on us.”
Panarin acknowledged he is fearful of the consequences of speaking out against the Putin regime. He said many in Russia view affection for the president as equivalent to patriotism and that Putin has a history of violently cracking down on political dissent.
“I just don’t understand how I, speaking the truth, can suffer just for that,” he said. “If a person just has a different opinion . . . I mean, where the hell is this question even coming from: Will I get in trouble for it or not? This shouldn’t even [arise]. No trouble should come for this.”