The day Luke Prokop shook the hockey world by popping out, he wanted to get away.
And cease his continually buzzing telephone.
It was July 21, 2021, and the right-shot defenseman had simply turn into the primary overtly homosexual hockey participant below an NHL contract. The Nashville Predators’ No. 73 choose within the 2020 draft was simply 19 years previous and hadn’t even turned professional but. He didn’t know the way it could affect his future. His nerves have been fried.
However one textual content message was unattainable to disregard. He didn’t acknowledge the quantity however definitely knew the identify.
“Hey, it’s Auston Matthews. I wished to congratulate you. I stay up for sharing the ice with you sometime.”
Prokop was blown away. The Toronto Maple Leafs famous person wasn’t probably the most well-known particular person to succeed in out — that honor goes to Elton John — however the truth that so many NHLers, together with one of many league’s finest and strongest gamers, have been providing assist meant rather a lot.
Now 21, Prokop nonetheless hasn’t taken the NHL ice, however on Wednesday he took a step ahead, being recalled by the Predators’ AHL affiliate in Milwaukee. He might turn into the primary overtly homosexual participant to seem in an AHL recreation Friday evening for the Admirals in Rockford.
As tough as the choice to come back out was, Prokop advised The Athletic in an prolonged dialog lately that he’s been mentally and bodily freed by it. He doesn’t have to cover. He may be himself, on and off the ice. Heck, he may even date.
“It’s been large,” he stated.
Teammates and followers have welcomed him in his journey towards the NHL to date, from Calgary, Edmonton and Seattle of the junior WHL to, most lately, Atlanta of the ECHL. They handled him like he was some other participant.
Not that there’s not room to develop. Prokop figured extra gamers would come out after he did. They haven’t, not that he would rush anybody’s determination on that. He’s additionally been dissatisfied by the developments over the previous few years with the NHL’s inclusion efforts, together with the Delight tape “debacle.”
He can solely management his personal actions, although, and doesn’t remorse his determination.
“I’d prefer to suppose I’m a practical particular person,” Prokop stated. “I do know hockey will not be going to be eternally. As a lot as (after I got here out) I’d have beloved to maintain taking part in, I used to be OK with not taking part in any extra if it didn’t work out — simply having the ability to stay my life the best way I wished, to be myself.
“However now, I don’t need to cease taking part in. It was positively nerve-wracking. You by no means know what the response goes to be inside hockey, exterior hockey, as a result of nobody has achieved it earlier than. We sort of went out on a limb and hoped for the most effective. It’s been far more optimistic than we thought it’d be. You’re going to have some keyboard warriors, which there have been a couple of, however I used to be anticipating extra.
“I didn’t count on the quantity of assist I obtained from NHL gamers. That was actually cool.”
The Matthews textual content and Elton John telephone name the morning after have been memorable, with the homosexual rock legend welcoming him to the neighborhood and providing his e mail tackle if Prokop ever wanted something.
Prokop discovered much more consolation in a second that got here a couple of days later — the primary time he performed hockey since his announcement. It was a four-on-four league in Edmonton at Meadows Rec Middle, a spot the place professionals and NHLers competed and saved in form throughout the offseason.
Prokop was on a group with Colton and Kirby Dach. The opposite group had Philadelphia Flyers goalie Carter Hart and the Boston Bruins’ Jake DeBrusk. Throughout warmups, Prokop discovered himself close to mid-ice. The primary man to method him was DeBrusk. The 2 had met beforehand via mutual mates. DeBrusk tapped Prokop’s shin pads together with his stick.
“Congrats,” he advised him. “I’m actually joyful for you. When you want something, let me know.”
“I didn’t know what the response could be,” Prokop stated. “In order that meant rather a lot.”
Prokop was returning that yr to the Calgary Hitmen (WHL), the junior group he had performed for the earlier 4 seasons. However there had been a variety of turnover on the roster and, in fact, rather a lot had modified for Prokop. So he determined to handle the group in its first assembly in coaching camp.
“Everybody is aware of what I did final summer season,” he advised his group. “I don’t need you to really feel uncomfortable. There could be a variety of media asking you for an interview. When you don’t really feel comfy, you don’t should do them. When you’ve got any questions for me, come ask me. I’m an open e-book. I simply don’t need you guys to really feel uncomfortable.”
In that dressing room, Prokop had heard loads of the uncomfortable language that’s not unusual for any locker room. He even admitted utilizing it. He didn’t need to out himself. He wished to behave straight, be “one of many guys.”
“I heard it, nevertheless it wasn’t on a regular basis,” he stated. “I additionally took it from the attitude that these guys don’t know any higher. It’s hockey language. It’s how guys discuss. They don’t imply it in a dangerous manner. They use the phrase ‘homosexual’ as a filler on the finish of a sentence to make one thing silly. ‘Nicely, that’s so homosexual.’ I wasn’t comfy with it, however I used it myself. I didn’t need to look like I used to be out of the combo.
“Some guys texted me (after I got here out), ‘F—, sorry if I stated something to offend you after we performed.’ I’d simply say, ‘Guys, you had no thought.’ The lesson is you don’t know what everybody goes via. The phrases you say do matter. Ensure you suppose earlier than you converse. It’s a foolish rule you be taught in kindergarten. It applies to life if you’re 22 or 35 and by no means goes away.
“The way in which hockey goes with the language, guys are naturally altering their language. I’ve heard a change in language on each group I’ve been on.”
Prokop stated that season was the most effective of his profession, each from a manufacturing standpoint and a private one. He was traded to the Edmonton Oil Kings early within the season and had 10 objectives and 33 factors in 55 video games for them, serving to them win the WHL’s Ed Chynoweth Cup and advance to the Memorial Cup.
Luke Pierce, then an assistant coach for Edmonton and now the top coach, stated the employees and administration had discussions with the management group earlier than buying Prokop — ensuring they have been comfy with it, feeling out whether or not their room might deal with the eye. Pierce stated he requested one of many captains, Blues prospect Jake Neighbours, for his perspective. Neighbours had recognized Prokop since they have been 10 or 11, rising up taking part in in spring tournaments collectively. He advised Pierce and the employees there could be “zero challenge” and he’d be a terrific addition.
Neighbours stated nothing actually modified, that Prokop “match proper in” to the group. Pierce at first questioned if gamers would have any challenge with rooming assignments on the street, however no person blinked. Pierce famous that Prokop would joke about conditions and even opened up about his boyfriend coming to go to.
“He put all people comfortable,” Pierce stated. “I usually inform folks, if the skin world might see how the group of males interacted, it could be only a large inspiration on how we must always deal with all people.”
Pierce and Prokop identified how this technology is extra comfy and geared up to deal with LGBTQ+ inclusion points. Everybody appears to know somebody, be mates with somebody, or be associated to somebody in the neighborhood.
“I simply don’t suppose guys actually care anymore,” Prokop stated. “They could be nervous as they’ve this stereotype model of what a homosexual man may seem like, sound like, act like. Like me, coming to a group, they suppose I’ll act a sure manner, look a sure manner, however they’ll understand three minutes into speaking to me that I’m not that.
“Hockey is a part of me. It’s who I’m. Guys completely neglect (about me being homosexual) after I’m on the rink. They’re not afraid to ask questions. However apart from that, it by no means actually comes up. That’s how I wished it to be. I wished them to know, however we will all exit and play. I by no means wished to be a distraction.”
Predators prospect Luke Prokop on popping out: ‘Having the ability to actually be who I’m’
The NHL’s selections round Delight jerseys and stick tape weren’t a distraction, Prokop stated, however he has gotten annoyed about it.
He understood the problem over sporting sweaters throughout warmups — “jerseys weren’t actually their alternative” — however lamented that the actual fact the main target was on the handful of gamers who refused to put on them and never all of the others who did. The NHL’s preliminary banning of Delight stick tape, then its reversal, was an entire different subject.
“To remove selections from gamers was actually complicated,” Prokop stated. “A few of them don’t actually care. For some, it was close to and pricey to their coronary heart. To take it away was mind-boggling. From the gamers’ facet, the assist was there. Zach Hyman talked about it, Travis Dermott. I like what they did. They didn’t make an enormous deal about it earlier than — they simply did it. Let followers see the remaining, and it’ll care for itself. There’s a large quantity of assist from gamers within the NHL.”
What do the Delight tape and sweaters imply for somebody within the LGBTQ+ neighborhood?
Prokop didn’t recall noticing them rising up going to Oilers video games. He by no means obtained to see somebody who was homosexual utilizing Delight tape on the TV display screen. He needed to cope with it himself — “bounce over these boundaries with none assist.” However Prokop continued pursuing his hockey profession whereas “lots of people don’t really feel comfy pursuing their profession with out that publicity, with out feeling like they’re being seen.”
“I believe with the Delight tape stuff, they have been making an attempt to indicate assist for his or her older followers,” Prokop stated of the NHL. “The followers which have been watching hockey for 40-50 years. That’s not the way you develop the sport. You need to get the youthful technology, put these guys in the most effective scenario to advertise the sport. Generally I don’t suppose the NHL does that the proper manner. The Delight tape is one instance.”
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Prokop has been a part of two Delight nights since he got here out, one with the Edmonton Oil Kings and one other with Seattle. The Oil Kings employees approached him after not having that occasion on their promotional calendar. They deliberate it in two weeks and it was an enormous hit, with round 8,000 followers in attendance.
“Some guys advised me it was probably the most impactful recreation they’d been in throughout their profession,” Prokop stated. “They stated they didn’t understand what number of Queer followers they’d. I don’t suppose they understand how a lot my neighborhood watches hockey, performs hockey and cares about hockey.
The Seattle Delight evening was fan-driven, which made it distinctive. Thunderbirds followers observed that different rival groups had a particular evening for Delight and made a push for their very own, making bracelets and T-shirts. Prokop advised teammates they didn’t should put on the stick tape — he is aware of how superstitious hockey gamers are. All of them wore some, for him.
“I all the time take a look at the attitude, the opposite facet of Delight nights — why do you will have them if nobody on the group is homosexual?” Prokop stated. “The purpose is that it’s for the followers. For me, it means rather a lot to play in them to indicate my neighborhood and be a consultant on the ice.”
Whereas schooling is essential, Prokop stated any actual change within the NHL in the case of inclusion will begin with different gamers popping out. He’s not placing any timeline or strain on that. He didn’t have one. However that’s when gamers within the league will see a unique perspective, get extra comfy with it.
“In any other case, it’s all the time going to be a narrative,” Prokop stated. “I can also see why guys don’t need to come out. Particularly within the NHL. They’ve been very profitable, so why change? I sort of noticed that from the attitude when the entire Delight jersey story got here out. My telephone was blowing up. I don’t suppose guys need to should cope with that. There was a accountability for me to speak about these subjects. I don’t suppose guys need to try this. I can see it from that facet, why they don’t need to come out.
“I don’t suppose something goes to vary until another person does. Another person will step up. It’s solely a matter of time. I believed there’d perhaps be two, three of us by now. However it hasn’t occurred. However I do know there’s going to be another person quickly. It’s math. There’s what, 700 gamers within the league? There’s positively a couple of extra.”
Whereas there have been some derogatory feedback coming from the stands on a couple of events, Prokop has been inspired there have been none from opposing gamers.
“Zero,” he stated.
A lot of the suggestions he’s acquired, even on social media, has been optimistic. And it’s not simply the feedback like Matthews’ that follow him. Two excessive schoolers in Seattle, Kaitlin and Jo, reached out to him over Instagram. They’re a part of the LGBTQ+ neighborhood and have been struggling.
“Like everybody, they simply wished somebody to speak to,” Prokop stated.
A part of Prokop’s pregame routine is often to hold by the bench and take heed to music. On many events, Kaitlin and Jo would come by and the three of them would simply chat for 10, 12 minutes. They’re the followers that Prokop noticed each recreation above the tunnel on his approach to the dressing room. They’ve stayed in contact. Prokop even did a Zoom assembly with their highschool class final month. “They’ve a particular place in my coronary heart,” he stated.
When, and if, Prokop makes his NHL debut, he says he’ll have a particular secret plan for them.
Whether or not Prokop lives his NHL dream stays to be seen. He’s praised the Predators for his or her assist from the primary time he did a gaggle video name with the employees. Former NHLer Mark Borowiecki, now a improvement coach, has been somebody Prokop has leaned on usually, not just for on-ice recommendation however for assist getting via issues mentally.
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Scott Nichol, the Predators’ assistant GM, likes Prokop’s potential.
“Huge right-shot defensemen that may skate, transfer the puck. They don’t develop on bushes,” he stated. “He simply wants to shine up his recreation in some areas within the defensive zone. He’s obtained the instruments. He’s obtained the skating means. It’s simply endurance and embrace the method.”
Prokop is grateful for his assist group, from his dad and mom, Al and Nicole, to his brother, Josh, and sister, Alanna. He’s saved in contact with Heather Lefebvre, who’s a specialist in hockey engagement and alumni relations with the Oilers Leisure Group. They discuss nearly daily. What stands proud to Lefebvre is how younger Prokop was when he got here out (19), and whereas he wears this “trailblazer” cap, he’s nonetheless standing alone.
“I believe this technology is extra prepared for it than previous generations, for positive,” Lefebvre stated. “It says rather a lot to me that no person else has come out within the yr and a half since he has. He’s the one overtly homosexual participant below NHL contract, however he’s not the one homosexual participant below NHL contract.
“That’s the place I believe we have now work to do. Is it nice that he’s been accepted and might do his factor? Sure. However he appears to be like on the positives, which makes me actually joyful for him. However that doesn’t imply there’s no destructive.”
Prokop takes the positives in his off-ice life, too. He lives with Alanna within the offseason again house in Edmonton. He’s discovered teammates to share in his hobbies, like golf (he performs 40 to 50 rounds a yr). He likes to learn, from biographies to sci-fi. He watches basketball greater than hockey and has greater than 25 jerseys. He cooks. He obtained into puzzles throughout the pandemic and is bullish about doing them on his personal.
Prokop additionally feels comfy getting on the market on the relationship scene and never having to cover it from teammates.
“Clearly, the approach to life of a hockey participant is hard for some folks,” he stated. “I’m looking for the correct particular person to attach with. I’m a softie, a romantic man. I really like love. I’m all the time looking out for that proper particular person to spend the remainder of my life with.”
Prokop doesn’t see the label of being the primary overtly homosexual participant below NHL contract as a weight. It’s extra of a accountability. He has a platform and desires to make use of it. He’s life like, “dreaming about profitable the neighborhood service award greater than the Norris Trophy.”
Making the AHL bounce or sometime the NHL bounce gained’t outline him.
“Certainly one of my fundamental objectives after I got here out is that if I might have an effect on one particular person exterior of my household and mates in my lifetime, I’ve achieved my job,” he stated. “I believe I’ve achieved that and extra. And I need to proceed to try this.”
(High photograph courtesy of Oilers Leisure Group)