The dubious assault allegations against Rangers star Artemi Panarin made by his former KHL coach in a Russian tabloid Monday rocked the Blueshirts, the National Hockey League and hockey fans around the world.
The situation transcends hockey. It is a matter of international politics, a human being’s reputation and the motivations behind bringing such hair-raising accusations to light 10 years after the incident allegedly occurred.
It has forced Panarin to step away from the Rangers.
Andrei Nazarov, who coached Panarin during his lone season with the KHL’s Vityaz, alleges that a then 20-year-old Panarin beat up an 18-year-old Latvian woman while partying at a hotel bar following a road loss in Riga, Latvia, in December 2011. Nazarov, who coached for 13 seasons in the KHL but is currently without a job in the league, was the only source cited in the article on ALhockey.ru.
Taking into consideration that Panarin — who “unequivocally and vehemently” denies the “fabricated story” — has been an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin’s regime in recent years, and that Nazarov is a well-documented, irrefutable loyalist to the Russian president, there has been speculation on the timing of the article, Nazarov’s intentions and how the Rangers’ top scorer is perceived in his home country.
How did Panarin, one of the most dynamic, game-changing hockey players in the world, find himself in the middle a political firestorm? How did a well-established NHL player reach the point of having to take a leave of absence from his team to work through what appears to be a target drawn on his back by the country that raised him?
Panarin’s mother, Elena, gave birth to him on Oct. 30, 1991 when she was just 20 years old. She and his father, Sergey, divorced when Panarin was 3 months old and he was adopted by his grandparents, Vladimir and Nina Levin, in 1992.
In a wide-ranging interview about his childhood with The Athletic in 2018, Panarin divulged details of his upbringing in Korkino — a Russian mining town of about 40,000 people.
Nina was a seamstress and Vladimir was a former hockey player who pushed Panarin to pursue the sport. Money was scarce, but Panarin’s grandparents did everything they could to give him a chance to play hockey.
Panarin received his first pair of skates at 5 years old when Vladimir fished them out of the discard pile at a local rink. They were so big Panarin had to wear shoes inside of them. He had ropes for laces. His first pair of gloves were so worn out Nina had to sew leather from an old pair of boots onto the palm to salvage them.
When Panarin was 8, he started traveling to Chelyabinsky, about 25 miles away, six days a week for practices and games. If Vladimir couldn’t drive — or the car wouldn’t start — Panarin took a bus. Other young players laughed at him for his hand-me-down equipment and his grandpa’s old car.
“There were kids who had everything handed to them, while Artemi had to borrow things or just have his grandfather ask for help around town,” Georgi Belousov, a childhood friend, told The Athletic. “You can’t describe it. There are no words in Russian or English to describe how sad and humiliating it was for Artemi.”
Although he was always fast, Panarin wasn’t considered a special player during his early teens, especially because his teammates were much bigger and stronger. Belousov’s father eventually found a boarding school in Moscow that was connected to a KHL club.
Panarin said goodbye to his grandparents for an entire school year, which included holidays, and took a two-day ride to Moscow. While at the boarding school, Panarin was fitted for new hockey gear for the first time — and it made a world of difference.
At the World Junior Championships in Buffalo on Jan. 5 2011, Panarin captured the hockey world’s attention. He moved up in the lineup because of an injury after two periods of the gold medal game between Russia and Canada.
With Russia down 3-0, Panarin scored at 2:33 of the third period, effectively igniting a Russian comeback. Thirteen seconds later it was 3-2, and then it was 3-3. Panarin then netted the game-winning goal with 4:38 left on the clock.
Panarin continued to develop in the KHL after his international moment of glory, playing four seasons with the Chekhov Vityaz, two of which were under Nazarov. According to various players on that team interviewed by The Post, Panarin was a happy-go-lucky kid who was always making everybody in the locker room laugh.
He worked to improve his English with the North American players and was beginning to grow into a star on the ice.
It was during the 2011-12 season that Nazarov alleges Panarin “sent the 18-year-old citizen of Latvia to the floor with several powerful blows,” according to a Google translation of the ALhockey.ru article. Panarin recorded 26 points in 38 games for Vityaz before he was traded to the Kazan Ak-Bars for the last 12 games of that season.
But Panarin came back to Vityaz in 2012-13, which had a new head coach in Yuri Leonov.
As many as four of Panarin’s teammates on that Vityaz squad have told The Post they had never heard of his involvement in a physical altercation.
Panarin went on to win the Gagarin Cup with SKA St. Petersburg, the team he played his final three KHL seasons with. He eventually was heavily pursued by several NHL teams.
After signing a two-year, entry-level deal with the Blackhawks on April 29, 2015, Panarin rose to stardom in Chicago skating next to team staple Patrick Kane. He had 77 points (30 goals, 47 assists) during the 2015-16 season, which earned him the Calder Trophy, and 74 points (31 goals, 43 assists) the following year.
In June 2017, Panarin was traded to the Blue Jackets and continued to flourish, posting 82 points (27 goals, 55 assists) during the 2016-17 season before setting a Columbus franchise record with 87 points (38 goals, 59 assists) in 2017-18.
When he became a highly coveted free agent after that season, Panarin seemingly embraced the platform he had built for himself and took control of his celebrity status. He reportedly turned down a seven-year deal with an average annual value of over $12 million from the Islanders and snubbed a staggering eight-year, $96 million contract from the Blue Jackets.
Instead, Panarin inked a seven-year, $81.5 million deal with the Rangers, with an AAV of $11.642 million.
“For me, it’s not all about the money,” Panarin told The Athletic in 2018. “I want the things that money can’t buy.”
The same month Panarin signed in New York, he sat down for a wide-ranging interview with the Vsemu Golovin YouTube channel. It was then Panarin took a stand for what he believed in, going against everything that Russian culture has pushed in recent years: not speaking out against the country.
The 2019-20 Hart Trophy finalist spoke of the “lawlessness” and “no freedom of speech” in Russia. When asked about one of his Instagram posts speaking out against a recent law enacted that forbid criticism of the government, Panarin questioned who in his home country would be the one deciding what was news?
“How will they decide what’s fake and what’s not? It’s obvious what will happen,” he told Golovin, per SlavaDoesAmerica.com translations. “They want to do whatever they want and also never be disrespected. Hey, I get disrespected on the internet when I lose. It’s nothing terrible. [The government] doesn’t always do what is right. This is why journalists and freedom of speech exist, I think: to show them the other side or to point out their mistakes. If there is no competition, there is no progress.”
Panarin said he came around to opposing Putin’s regime after listening to Navalny, Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) — a 24/7 commercial radio station based in Russia whose motto is “All significant points of view about events should be presented” — and Dozhd, the independent television channel.
“I think that if I go and watch 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,” Panarin said. “But that is impossible. There are normal people everywhere.”
He assured that he was coming from a positive place and acknowledged that some may think he looks like a “foreign agent.” Panarin also said he believes those who “hush up the problems” are more like foreign agents than those who talk about them.
But more than anything, Panarin declared that he wanted change.
Regarding Putin, who has been in power since Dec. 31, 1999, Panarin didn’t mince his words. He said he thought Putin had been in power for too long, and called it “unfortunate” that Russians were keeping him in office in overwhelming numbers.
“I think he no longer understands what’s right and what’s wrong,” Panarin said. “… In America, you have two four-year terms, and that’s it. You can’t come back.”
Panarin considers himself more of a patriot than those who would allow the problems in their country to go unchallenged. He said it isn’t fair to force citizens to love their country no matter what and hate everybody else.
To Panarin, there is no patriotism in that.
“If I see issues and don’t talk about them,” he said, “ I think it’s a greater treason than when I talk about them.”