New York Rangers winger Artemi Panarin, a finalist for last season’s Hart Trophy, given to the NHL’s MVP, has taken a leave of absence from the team after his former coach in Russia raised allegations that Panarin assaulted an 18-year-old woman in Latvia in December 2011.

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

The allegations were raised by Andrei Nazarov, a former NHL player who coached Panarin with Kontinental Hockey League club HC Vityaz in Russia. Speaking to Komsomolskaya Pravda, a pro-Kremlin outlet, Nazarov said Panarin “sent an 18-year-old citizen of Latvia to the floor with several powerful blows” at a hotel bar in Riga on Dec. 11, 2011. Nazarov claims Panarin, who was 20 at the time, was detained by local authorities but avoided punishment after a cash payment of 40,000 euros (approximately $52,000 at the time) was made. Nazarov did not say who made this payment.

Vityaz traded Panarin to another KHL club, SKA Saint Petersburg, in January 2013. He has played in the NHL, for the Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets and Rangers, since 2015.

Panarin has been a frequent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a 2019 interview with a Russian journalist, Panarin criticized the “lawlessness” that he says has persisted in Russia during Putin’s decades-long reign as president.

“Our mistake is that we treat him like a superman,” Panarin said of Putin. “But he is the same as we are.”

In January, Panarin posted a photo of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most vocal critic, with the hashtag #freenavalny. This month, a Russian judge rejected Navalny’s appeal of a 2½-year prison sentence he received for violating terms of his probation in court proceedings that Navalny called a sham.

Panarin had 32 goals and 63 assists for the Rangers last season, his first in New York after signing a seven-year, $81.5 million contract. This season, he has five goals and 13 assists in 14 games.

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