Artemi Panarin fielded questions for the first time regarding the politically motivated assault allegations levied against him by his former KHL coach, but he wouldn’t reveal why he felt the need to step away from the Rangers and miss nine games from late February to mid-March.
“I know I said it wasn’t really much of a secret and I would tell everyone,” he said through a translator Saturday after a team scrimmage. “I was a bit lazy last summer, but now is not really the time to talk about it.”
Panarin, who is entering his third season in New York, said he has a new season to focus on.
The allegations, in which Panarin was accused of a 2001 assault on an 18-year-old Latvian woman, were published in a Russian tabloid, which cited an interview with Andrei Nazarov, who coached Panarin during his days with the KHL’s Vityaz.
Nazarov, a known supporter of Russian president Vladamir Putin, was apparently trying to hinder Panarin’s chances of playing for Russia in the Olympics. Panarin has openly and strongly opposed Putin’s regime on more than one occasion.
The Rangers, in a statement released in February denying the allegations, said Nazarov’s claims were “clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events.”
Panarin, however, said Saturday not to focus on the politics.
“The whole situation wasn’t really about political discourse,” Panarin said. “No outside forces are telling me not to talk about politics, but [not talking politics is] my own conscious choice that I’m making.”
The NHL recently agreed to allow league players to take part in the Olympics for the first time in eight years. Panarin, however, said he hasn’t heard anything from Team Russia. Both Adam Fox (Team USA) and Mika Zibanejad (Team Sweden) have already heard their names are on an extended list for their respective country’s teams for the Beijing Olympics in 2022.
Panarin, who will turn 30 at the end of next month, said he would be happy to compete in the upcoming Olympics, adding that it’s a “great honor” to play for Russia on such a big stage.
Somehow, dealing with a former coach’s political agenda wasn’t the only crazy incident Panarin endured last season. The star winger missed the final three games of the 2020-21 season after he was injured during a one-sided tussle with Capitals headhunter Tom Wilson.
Panarin revealed that when Wilson rag-dolled him to the ice, it wasn’t his head that was injured in the melee, but another part of his body that he would not specify.
“Really any player would get emotional in such a situation, where you’re not really thinking if you have a helmet [on] or not,” Panarin said. “What you really want to do is just get out and start fighting back in some way, and that’s when I was injured. The best choice would probably have been to just stay down and keep quiet.”
Panarin said he was grateful for the Rangers’ scathing statement that called for Wilson’s suspension, as well as the firing of director of player safety George Parros.
“The gesture that the team made after the situation really made me appreciate the team,” he said, “and I realized that this is the team that I want to do everything I can for.”
Panarin, who signed a seven-year, $81.5 million contract in July 2019, posted a career-high 95 points (32 goals, 63 assists) in his first season with the Rangers. He followed that up with a 1.38 points per game average in 2020-21 — behind just the Oilers’ Connor McDavid (1.88) and Leon Draisaitl (1.50).
Through the first three days of training camp, Panarin has been skating in his usual spot, on the second line next to center Ryan Strome, with Kaapo Kakko taking a majority of the right-wing reps. Panarin said there was “good energy” in the locker room and a “positive” outlook, overall.
“We definitely even could’ve reached the playoffs last year, we have a good team, well-organized,” Panarin said. “And now the team is even stronger with a winning coach. So I think going forward, there’s just a positive outlook on everything.”
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