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Luke Prokop discusses NHL’s Pride missteps and his preparations to make history in hockey

The day Luke Prokop shook the hockey world by coming out, he needed to get away.And stop looking at his constantly buzzing phone.It was July 21, 2021, and the right-shot defenseman had just become the first openly gay hockey player under an NHL contract. The Nashville Predators’ No. 73 pick in the 2020 draft was just 19 years old and hadn’t even turned pro yet. He didn’t know how it would impact his future. His nerves were fried.But one text message was impossible to ignore. He didn’t recognize the number but certainly knew the name.“Hey, it’s Auston Matthews. I wanted to congratulate you. I look forward to sharing the ice with you someday.”Prokop was blown away. The Toronto Maple Leafs superstar wasn’t the most famous person to reach out — that honor goes to Elton John — but the fact that so many NHLers, including one of the league’s best and most powerful players, were offering support meant a lot.Now 21, Prokop still hasn’t taken the NHL ice, but on Wednesday he took a step forward, being recalled by the Predators’ AHL affiliate in Milwaukee. He could become the first openly gay player to appear in an AHL game Friday night for the Admirals in Rockford.
As difficult as the decision to come out was, Prokop told The Athletic in an extended conversation recently that he’s been mentally and physically freed by it. He doesn’t have to hide. He can be himself, on and off the ice. Heck, he can even date.“It’s been massive,” he said.Teammates and fans have welcomed him in his journey toward the NHL so far, from Calgary, Edmonton and Seattle of the junior WHL to, most recently, Atlanta of the ECHL. They treated him like he was any other player.Not that there’s not room to grow. Prokop figured more players would come out after he did. They haven’t, not that he would rush anyone’s decision on that. He’s also been disappointed by the developments over the past few years with the NHL’s inclusion efforts, including the Pride tape “debacle.”He can only control his own actions, though, and doesn’t regret his decision.“I’d like to think I’m a realistic person,” Prokop said. “I know hockey is not going to be forever. As much as (when I came out) I would have loved to keep playing, I was OK with not playing any more if it didn’t work out — just being able to live my life the way I wanted, to be myself.“But now, I don’t want to stop playing. It was definitely nerve-wracking. You never know what the reaction is going to be inside hockey, outside hockey, because no one has done it before. We kind of went out on a limb and hoped for the best. It’s been way more positive than we thought it’d be. You’re going to have some keyboard warriors, which there were a few, but I was expecting more.“I did not expect the amount of support I got from NHL players. That was really cool.”The Matthews text and Elton John phone call the morning after were memorable, with the gay rock legend welcoming him to the community and offering his email address if Prokop ever needed anything.Prokop found even more comfort in a moment that came a few days later — the first time he played hockey since his announcement. It was a four-on-four league in Edmonton at Meadows Rec Center, a place where pros and NHLers competed and kept in shape during the offseason.Prokop was on a team with Colton and Kirby Dach. The other team had Philadelphia Flyers goalie Carter Hart and the Boston Bruins’ Jake DeBrusk. During warmups, Prokop found himself near mid-ice. The first guy to approach him was DeBrusk. The two had met previously through mutual friends. DeBrusk tapped Prokop’s shin pads with his stick.“Congrats,” he told him. “I’m really happy for you. If you need anything, let me know.”“I didn’t know what the reaction would be,” Prokop said. “So that meant a lot.”Prokop was returning that year to the Calgary Hitmen (WHL), the junior team he had played for the previous four seasons. But there had been a lot of turnover on the roster and, of course, a lot had changed for Prokop. So he decided to address the team in its first meeting in training camp.“Everyone knows what I did last summer,” he told his team. “I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable. There might be a lot of media asking you for an interview. If you don’t feel comfortable, you don’t have to do them. If you have any questions for me, come ask me. I’m an open book. I just don’t want you guys to feel uncomfortable.”In that dressing room, Prokop had heard plenty of the uncomfortable language that’s not uncommon for any locker room. He even admitted using it. He didn’t want to out himself. He wanted to act straight, be “one of the guys.”“I heard it, but it wasn’t all the time,” he said. “I also took it from the perspective that these guys don’t know any better. It’s hockey language. It’s how guys talk. They don’t mean it in a harmful way. They use the word ‘gay’ as a filler at the end of a sentence to make something stupid. ‘Well, that’s so gay.’ I wasn’t comfortable with it, but I used it myself. I didn’t want to seem like I was out of the mix.“Some guys texted me (after I came out), ‘F—, sorry if I said anything to offend you when we played.’ I’d just say, ‘Guys, you had no idea.’ The lesson is you don’t know what everyone is going through. The words you say do matter. Make sure you think before you speak. It’s a silly rule you learn in kindergarten. It applies to life when you’re 22 or 35 and never goes away.“The way hockey is going with the language, guys are naturally changing their language. I’ve heard a change in language on every team I’ve been on.”Prokop said that season was the best of his career, both from a production standpoint and a personal one. He was traded to the Edmonton Oil Kings early in the season and had 10 goals and 33 points in 55 games for them, helping them win the WHL’s Ed Chynoweth Cup and advance to the Memorial Cup. Luke Prokop won the WHL’s Ed Chynoweth Cup with the Oil Kings in 2022. (Courtesy of Oilers Entertainment Group)Luke Pierce, then an assistant coach for Edmonton and now the head coach, said the staff and management had discussions with the leadership group before acquiring Prokop — making sure they were comfortable with it, feeling out whether their room could handle the attention. Pierce said he asked one of the captains, Blues prospect Jake Neighbours, for his perspective. Neighbours had known Prokop since they were 10 or 11, growing up playing in spring tournaments together. He told Pierce and the staff there would be “zero issue” and he’d be a great addition.Neighbours said nothing really changed, that Prokop “fit right in” to the team. Pierce at first wondered if players would have any issue with rooming assignments on the road, but nobody blinked. Pierce noted that Prokop would joke about situations and even opened up about his boyfriend coming to visit.“He put everybody at ease,” Pierce said. “I often tell people, if the outside world could see how the group of men interacted, it would be just a tremendous inspiration on how we should treat everybody.”Pierce and Prokop pointed out how this generation is more comfortable and equipped to handle LGBTQ+ inclusion issues. Everyone seems to know someone, be friends with someone, or be related to someone in the community.“I just don’t think guys really care anymore,” Prokop said. “They might be nervous as they have this stereotype version of what a gay guy might look like, sound like, act like. Like me, coming to a team, they think I’ll act a certain way, look a certain way, but they’ll realize three minutes into talking to me that I’m not that.“Hockey is part of me. It’s who I am. Guys totally forget (about me being gay) when I’m at the rink. They’re not afraid to ask questions. But other than that, it never really comes up. That’s how I wanted it to be. I wanted them to…


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