It was 41 years ago this week that Team USA defeated the Soviet Union in a Winter Olympics “Miracle on Ice’’ at Lake Placid that forever changed hockey in this country.
But that loss, in one of the greatest sports upsets of all-time, also preceded seismic changes for hockey in Russia and other Soviet-satellite nations. A decade that began with their Olympic defeat against an unheralded team of American collegians would culminate with the first Russian players defecting their way into the NHL.
Over the next three decades, Russians became more prevalent in the NHL than any of North America’s other pro sports leagues, comprising some of its top players. You had “The Russian Five” — Sergei Federov, Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Slava Koslov and Vladimir Konstantinov — dominating for Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings squads in the 1990s — evolving to more recent championships for players like Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov with the Washington Capitals and Nikita Kucherov with the Tampa Bay Lightning again last season.
Russian Hall of Famers are becoming commonplace, as are major trophy winners and scoring champions like Ovechkin.
And as local sports fans unfamiliar with NHL nuances may soon discover, that unique Russian element on the ice can occasionally lend itself to some unusual happenings away from it.
This week provided an example of that, with the bizarre case of Russian-born New York Rangers star forward Artemi Panarin taking a leave of absence after he was accused of by his former coach of beating up an 18-year-old woman in a Latvian bar a decade ago. Those details alone would have been odd and frightening enough.
But adding to the off-the-wall nature of the story is that his team is fully backing Panarin in public; suggesting he is the victim of a revenge plot being carried out by those sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Artemi vehemently and unequivocally denies any and all allegations in this fabricated story,’’ said a statement put out by the Rangers on Monday. “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.”
Now, I’m typically skeptical of professional athletes whenever stories come out about abusing women. We’ve seen and heard abusive athletes claim such allegations were exaggerated by the media, or fabrications, only to have detailed police reports, eyewitness accounts and even videos contradict them.
I’ve come across too many well-oiled pro sports publicity machines and former police officers working as “fixers’’ on team and league payrolls dedicated to making complaints by truthful female victims go away. So, I’m not about to proclaim Panarin an innocent man just yet.
That said, this story lacks essentials needed to proclaim Panarin a guilty man: Most notably, a victim, a police report and a credible person making the accusation.
What we do know is that Panarin is the most outspoken Russian athlete in any sport when it comes to criticizing Putin. His interview quotes and social media postings have ripped Putin to shreds and irked even fellow Russian players supportive of the Russian leader – most notably, Capitals star Ovechkin.
But Panarin reached new heights of outspokenness last month when he expressed Instagram support for Putin political opponent Alexei Navalny, whose recent imprisonment in Russia has led to widespread demonstrations and counter-crackdowns by Russian security forces.
Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader, nearly died last August when poisoned by a chemical nerve agent in what he calls a government assassination attempt. He was treated in Berlin, where he continued to denounce Putin ahead of returning to Russia last month and being promptly arrested.
Governments worldwide condemned Russia’s move, including the Biden Administration. Given the higher stakes for Russia, including pending foreign sanctions, it isn’t surprising Panarin’s support for Navalny might attract attention from Kremlin supporters more than his past musings about favored Russian elites and systemic corruption.
Adding intrigue, the source of the assault allegations against Panarin is his former Kontinental Hockey League coach Andrei Nazarov, a onetime NHL enforcer. Nazarov claims Panarin beat the woman up while partying at a hotel bar in Riga, Latvia on Dec. 11, 2011 following a road loss and that local police were paid 40,000 Euros to cover it up.
The obvious question is why Nazarov waited until now to levy allegations. Some possible answers: He’s a prominent Putin supporter who’s previously blasted Panarin on Twitter and called for the jailing of Russian athletes critical of his country’s leader.
In any event, Nazarov has yet to offer a reasonable explanation for the delay — seemingly more focused on Panarin’s anti-Putin social media posts.
As I said, you never know.
But it’s not like this happened in Ohio and the NHL can dispatch a security team with ease. Latvia isn’t downtown Moscow, but the former Soviet republic is a faraway place and not the easiest to go muscling into local police stations demanding answers.
Many prior stories involving NHL players from Russia focused on links to organized crime and extortion attempts, especially when the country experienced increased crime and instability shortly after the 1991 fall of communism there.
But the fact remains, Russia is a world power increasingly at odds with the U.S. and so, as unusual as this Panarin story is, we probably shouldn’t be surprised it’s playing out this way.
The closest I can think of is the experience of Venezuelans in Major League Baseball, given that county’s outspoken anti-U.S. rhetoric of recent decades, internal instability — more so than Russia — and robberies and kidnappings committed against players and their families there.
But Venezuela isn’t a major power like Russia. The U.S. government devotes major time and effort daily toward figuring out what Russia is doing while it does the same with us.
And so, an athlete over here speaking out about a leader over there could come with bigger ramifications attached. The truth is, we may never know whether a teenage woman was assaulted by Panarin 10 years ago in Latvia.
If this increasingly bizarre story turns out to be true, it would indeed be awful. But just as terrible, perhaps — especially as a precursor of things to come for Panarin — if it turns out not to be true.