Russian ice hockey star Artemi Panarin has taken leave from his NHL club the New York Rangers after he was accused of assaulting a woman 10 years ago.
The Rangers say the case is fabricated and Panarin has been targeted because he supports detained Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Panarin, 29, is one of the few elite Russian athletes openly critical of President Vladimir Putin.
He has publicly backed Navalny, who was jailed this month on what the opposition politician said were politically motivated charges.
“This is clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events,” the NHL team said in a statement on Monday.
“Artemi is obviously shaken and concerned and will take some time away from the team.”
The New York Rangers said Panarin, who was a finalist last season for the league’s most valuable player award, “vehemently and unequivocally denies” the allegations against him.
The statement comes after former NHL player Andrei Nazarov told the Sports.ru website that Panarin had been detained after beating up an 18-year-old woman at a hotel bar in Riga in Latvia in 2011.
Nazarov, who briefly coached Panarin in Russia, has in the past been critical of Panarin’s support for Navalny.