Artemi Panarin supporting Russian opposition leader

New York Rangers star winger Artemi Panarin showed his support for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in an Instagram post on Thursday, ahead of planned protests in his native country this weekend.

Panarin posted a photo of Navalny and his wife and two children, with a caption that translates to: "Freedom for Navalny."

Through a Rangers spokesperson, Panarin declined to comment further about the topic on Thursday.

Navalny, a high-profile critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in August and had been recovering at a hospital in Germany. Navalny returned to Russia on Sunday and was immediately arrested at the airport and sent to a Moscow detention facility. He is awaiting trial for allegedly violating the terms of his probation from a 2014 embezzlement case.

In a video posted to his YouTube account, Navalny put out a call to his supporters: "Don't be afraid. Take to the streets. Don't do it for me, do it for yourselves and your future."

Panarin was a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL MVP last season. He typically spends his offseasons in Russia. It is rare to see high-profile Russian athletes speak out against Putin or the Russian government, but this isn't the first time Panarin has voiced his opinion.

In a Russian language interview in 2019 while he was with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the 29-year old winger said that he is frustrated to see economic development stalled and limited to the elite in Moscow.

"It's the same [as the 1990s]," Panarin said, according to a translation provided to ESPN. "The changes are small, almost nothing. ... We have two cities that are developing, St. Petersburg and Moscow, but the rest of them are a joke. I lived in Columbus, which isn't even in the top 10 American cities, but look at the pictures and you will see how nice it looks. ... American cities are developing thanks to local taxes which stay in the state. But here, a lot of money goes to Moscow, so people everywhere work for Moscow's benefit. I always thought it's unfair."

Panarin added: "I may look like a foreign agent right now, but it's not like that. I think that the people who hush up the problems are more like foreign agents than those who talk about them. If I think about problems, I am coming from a positive place. I want to change something, to have people live better. I don't want to see retirees begging."

Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Nikita Zadorov, also from Russia, reposted Panarin's pro-Navalny message on his own account Thursday.