When he returned to the Rangers following the leave of absence he took in late February, Artemi Panarin promised he would talk in more detail about his reason for leaving when the season was over. But he didn’t speak to the media on Virtual Breakup Day, and, through a team spokesman, promised he’d address the issue over the summer.
That didn’t happen either.
So when Panarin spoke to the local media on Day 3 of Rangers training camp Saturday, the first thing he was asked was whether he had anything to share about the reasons he felt it necessary to step away from the team for nine games during the crucial period as it fought a longshot battle to make the playoffs.
He preferred to look forward, though, rather than look back.
"I’m thinking more about the [upcoming] season than … remembering what happened last season,’’ Panarin said through a translator. "I know I said it wasn't really much of a secret, and that I would tell everyone. I was a bit lazy in doing [that] last summer, but now it's not really the time to talk about it.’’
Panarin left the Rangers Feb. 22 following the publication of an article on a Russian sports website in which a former coach of his accused him of physically assaulting a woman in a hotel bar in Latvia after a game there in 2011. The article came out about a month after Panarin had published a post on Instagram in support of Alexi Navalny, a political opponent of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The coach, former NHLer Andrei Nazarov, was known to be a supporter of Putin, and the Rangers issued a statement at the time saying Panarin "vehemently and unequivocally’’ denied the allegations in the story. "This is clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events,’’ it said.
The Rangers then granted Panarin, their leading scorer with 18 points in 14 games at the time, an indefinite leave of absence. He rejoined the team for a practice in Boston March 10, and returned to the lineup March 13, in a nationally televised afternoon game against the Bruins that the Rangers won, 4-0. The team went 4-5-0 in the nine games he missed.
Panarin was asked whether he now fears making any kind of political statements in the wake of that episode, but he insisted "the whole situation wasn't really about political discourse,’’ and said no outside forces are telling him not to talk about politics. He said it is his choice to veer away from talking about politics.
Regarding the Olympics next February, Panarin said he has not heard from the Russian hockey federation whether he was included on the country’s list of players who could participate in the Olympic tournament. If he is selected, he said, he would play.
"I would be more than happy to,’’ he said. "It's a great honor to play for the team. And it's a big event, the Olympic Games.’’
Saturday was also the first time Panarin has spoken to the local media since the May 3 incident when he was body slammed, helmetless, to the ice by Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson in a game at Madison Square Garden. Wilson was not punished by the NHL for that incident, and two days later, hours before the Rangers faced the Capitals again in the second of two games at the Garden, Rangers president John Davidson and GM Jeff Gorton were fired by team owner James Dolan. The Rangers and Capitals fought six times in the game that night, including three at the drop of the puck on the opening faceoff. Brendan Smith fought Wilson.
Panarin, who suffered an injury in the incident that caused him to miss the rest of the season, said he appreciated "the gesture’’ that the team made in fighting to avenge Wilson’s attack on him.