America is the land of the free and home of the brave — but when foreign athletes make it here, it doesn’t mean the long arm of their mother country doesn’t follow them.
That became evident this week when New York Rangers superstar Artemi Panarin, 29, announced he would be taking a leave of absence from the hockey team after a bombshell claim in a Russian newspaper.
Andrei Nazarov, who had coached the winger with the Vityaz — part of Russia’s KHL league — alleged Panarin had assaulted an 18-year-old girl in 2011 at a bar while the team was playing an away game in Riga, Latvia. Panarin, a native of Korkino, denied the allegations.
Both the Rangers and the NHL threw their support behind him, with the team’s statement reading in part: “This is clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events … The Rangers fully support Artemi and will work with him to identify the source of these unfounded allegations.”
It brought to the forefront the tangled and often precarious political tightrope Russian athletes are expected to walk while in the US.
“To [Russian president Vladimir] Putin, sport is gold,” a retired NHL player, who asked that his name be withheld, told The Post. “He uses sports as a political tool. Many former Russian hockey players are given cushy jobs with the government and opportunities for their families, so you won’t hear them say boo about Putin.”
In 2019, Panarin gave an interview criticizing the Russian president — saying, “I think he no longer understands what’s right and what’s wrong” — and, in January, he showed his support of now-jailed Putin critic Alexi Navalny.
“That was very bold of [Panarin],” an agent who has represented Russian players in the NHL told The Post. “And so is taking my clothes off in Times Square, but I don’t recommend it.”
The Post’s Larry Brooks reported that sources believe the allegations against Panarin were not a centralized campaign but rather Nazarov attempting to curry favor with Putin.
According to HockeyWriters.com, 4.8 percent of the NHL is made up of Russian players, which works out to roughly 38. Out of that group, not many have waded into political waters. Then there is Washington Capitols superstar Alex Ovechkin.
In 2017, the winger launched a coalition called “Putin Team” to throw his support behind the leader for the 2018 election.
“To me it’s a privilege, it’s like the feeling of when you put on the jersey of the Russian team,” he wrote on Instagram.
Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin joined, as did other athletes. Ovechkin said it was his idea, but the Washington Post reported that a Kremlin backed firm was likely behind the initiative.
“It is quite unusual for a Russian sportsman to discuss politics unless this person is explicitly involved or asked to participate in an activity with Putin,” University of Chicago professor Konstantin Sonin, a Russia native and economist, told The Post.
In 2011, Putin started the amateur Night Hockey League, where a collection of his associates play, making it his favored sport and the one closest to the country’s nexus of power.
“I would say the biggest sport there is soccer, but Putin personally plays hockey — and his close friends and his billionaires are involved operating and financing it. He cares very much about international pride. He cares a lot about the restoration of Soviet Union hockey glory. That’s why it’s so important for him,” said Sonin.
But it’s not only Putin who likes to keep “his” athletes under the thumb. NBA star Enes Kanter, whose family is in Turkey, became an enemy of that nation’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after speaking out about human rights abuses there. In 2017, the country revoked the Portland Trailblazer’s passport, his father was jailed, and he hasn’t spoken to his family in years. If Kanter returns to Turkey, he will almost certainly be thrown in prison.
“Freedom is not free,” he tweeted in 2019.
And there are plenty of people who think speaking out just isn’t worth it for athletes.
“If you are a 25-year-old hockey player and you grew up in Russia, you know what that country is all about. You are not in some vacuum to naively say things and think there won’t be an impact,” said the agent. “If a player asked me [whether or not to comment on politics], unless you have a strong reason, I’d say, ‘What’s the benefit?’”