Leave of Rangers’ Star Panarin After Russian Allegations Tries NHL’s Reach

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New York Rangers star left wing Artemi Panarin has taken leave in the aftermath of an accusation he physically assaulted an 18-year-old woman in Latvia in December 2011. The NHL’s investigation into the matter will require careful interpretation of the league’s conduct policy as well as attention to player security interests.

The incident allegedly occurred in a hotel bar after a game. Panarin, who finished third in NHL MVP voting last season, played for the KHL’s Chekhov Vityaz at the time. The 29-year-old native of Korkino, Russia, is in the second year of a seven-year, $81.5 million contract with the Rangers after prior stops with the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Chicago Blackhawks.

Much of the allegation remains shrouded in mystery and the accompanying details are hazy and unsubstantiated.

The allegation was published by the Russian daily tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, which the Washington Post describes as sympathetic to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Panarin has criticized Putin and Russian government restrictions on speech, and he has publicly supported poisoned Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.

The accuser is Panarin’s former KHL coach, Andrei Nazarov, who further contends that a criminal inquiry into the incident was stopped after an unidentified person paid 40,000 Euros. It’s unclear whether the alleged payment was part of a settlement to discourage the alleged victim from cooperating as a witness, a bribe to law enforcement or some other transaction. There is no reporting that the incident led to civil litigation.

In a statement released by the Rangers, Panarin categorically denies wrongdoing. The statement claims the allegation is part of “an intimidation tactic” to dissuade Panarin from criticizing the Russian government. Panarin, the team says, is “obviously shaken” and “will take some time away.”

ESPN reports the commissioner’s office intends to examine the allegations. The league has several perspectives to consider.

First, the NHL will take seriously a claim that one of its players assaulted an 18-year-old woman. Even if Panarin is the target of Kremlin-orchestrated intimidation, that circumstance alone wouldn’t debunk the underlying allegation. Article 18-A of the NHL-NHLPA collective bargaining agreement draws attention to conduct “detrimental to or against the welfare of the League or the game of hockey.” The league also mandates that players undergo training concerning domestic violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment. Further, the NHL has condemned gender-insensitive comments by persons associated with the league. Like all sports leagues, the NHL is also mindful of sponsorship implications from controversies that damage the league’s image. In extreme cases, such as the Donald Sterling racism controversy in the NBA, sponsors will cut ties.

Second, the NHL will evaluate security concerns that one of its players might be the target of state-sanctioned coercion or extortion. The fact that Panarin swiftly went on leave in response to a Russian-based allegation he fully denies could suggest he believes his or his family’s safety is at issue. The NHL also has substantial ties to Russian players and Russian hockey. According to one count conducted two years ago by Hockey Skills Training, approximately 4% of NHL players are Russian. The NHL and KHL have also negotiated terms, including a memorandum of understanding with regard to player movement.

For both jurisdictional and substantive reasons, it is unlikely the league would take disciplinary action against Panarin.

The allegation concerns Panarin’s alleged behavior in 2011, when he played in the KHL. He wasn’t a member of the NHLPA. The NHL sanctioning a current player for his pre-NHL conduct could draw rebuke from the NHLPA. The CBA defines “player” as “a hockey player who is a party to a standard player contract, a rookie, unsigned draft choices and free agents.” Panarin was NHL draft eligible in 2010. He went undrafted, thereby becoming an unrestricted free agent. Panarin continued to play under contract in the KHL until 2015, when the Blackhawks signed him.

It’s not unprecedented for a major pro league to punish a current player for conduct that occurred prior to him or her joining the league. In 2011, the NFL suspended Oakland Raiders rookie quarterback Terrelle Pryor for his actions while at Ohio State. Pryor and other Buckeye football players were accused of breaking NCAA amateurism rules by allegedly receiving tattoos in exchange for memorabilia. The NFL reasoned that it could punish Pryor on grounds that he had “intentionally [taken] steps to ensure that he would be declared ineligible for further college play and would be able to enter the NFL via the supplemental draft.” Still, such a move is rare.

The Panarin allegation itself might also collapse under scrutiny. The alleged incident took place a decade ago, in a foreign country; the alleged victim is not known (at least publicly); the legal aftermath was apparently brief; and there are reasons to believe the accusation is tied to political considerations. While 2011 is recent enough in time for the possibility of electronic evidence (texts, emails, cell phone photos), there’s no reporting that such evidence exists or would be obtainable.

Lasty, Panarin is owed procedural safeguards found in Article 18-A. The NHL’s system for investigating off-ice allegations is deliberative and values both transparency and notice.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has the authority to determine if a player “is guilty of conduct that is detrimental to or against the welfare of the League or the game of hockey.” Bettman, an attorney by trade, is further accorded the discretion to suspend the player, cancel his contract or impose a fine.

At the same time, the league cannot interview a player without first providing notice to the NHLPA and affording the union a “reasonable opportunity” to participate. Similarly, the NHL must make “best efforts” to schedule interviews with accusers and witnesses so the NHLPA could participate. If meetings take place without the NHLPA present, the NHL must share a copy of investigative notes or interview recordings (compare to Deflategate: Tom Brady and the NFLPA were denied investigative notes). The player at issue can also apply for a delay to consult with counsel.

Further, before the league can conduct a hearing, it must provide the player with a detailed statement concerning the allegations, the league’s reasoning, a list of evidence and witnesses and summaries of testimony. These measures embody the legal processes found in U.S. and Canadian courts, where parties must notify the other side of its evidence and witness list. While movies and TV shows sometimes suggest trials involve “smoking gun” revelations, the real-world legal process is designed otherwise.

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