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 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 know, but we can all go out and play. I never wanted to be a distraction.”
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The NHL’s decisions around Pride jerseys and stick tape weren’t a distraction, Prokop said, but he has gotten frustrated about it.
He understood the issue over wearing sweaters during warmups — “jerseys weren’t really their choice” — but lamented that the fact the focus was on the handful of players who refused to wear them and not all the others who did. The NHL’s initial banning of Pride stick tape, then its reversal, was a whole other topic.
“To take away choices from players was really confusing,” Prokop said. “Some of them don’t really care. For some, it was near and dear to their heart. To take it away was mind-boggling. From the players’ side, the support was there. Zach Hyman talked about it, Travis Dermott. I like what they did. They didn’t make a big deal about it before — they just did it. Let fans see the rest, and it’ll take care of itself. There’s a massive amount of support from players in the NHL.”
What do the Pride tape and sweaters mean for someone in the LGBTQ+ community?
Prokop didn’t recall noticing them growing up going to Oilers games. He never got to see someone who was gay using Pride tape on the TV screen. He had to deal with it himself — “jump over those barriers without any help.” But Prokop continued pursuing his hockey career whereas “a lot of people don’t feel comfortable pursuing their career without that exposure, without feeling like they’re being seen.”
“I think with the Pride tape stuff, they were trying to show support for their older fans,” Prokop said of the NHL. “The fans that have been watching hockey for 40-50 years. That’s not how you grow the game. You want to get the younger generation, put these guys in the best situation to promote the game. Sometimes I don’t think the NHL does that the correct way. The Pride tape is one example.”
NHL players allowed to represent social causes with stick tape
Prokop has been part of two Pride nights since he came out, one with the Edmonton Oil Kings and another with Seattle. The Oil Kings staff approached him after not having that event on their promotional calendar. They planned it in two weeks and it was a big hit, with around 8,000 fans in attendance.
“Some guys told me it was the most impactful game they’d been in during their career,” Prokop said. “They said they didn’t realize how many Queer fans they had. I don’t think they realize how much my community watches hockey, plays hockey and cares about hockey.
The Seattle Pride night was fan-driven, which made it unique. Thunderbirds fans noticed that other rival teams had a special night for Pride and made a push for their own, making bracelets and T-shirts. Prokop told teammates they didn’t have to wear the stick tape — he knows how superstitious hockey players are. They all wore some, for him.
“I always look at the perspective, the other side of Pride nights — why do you have them if no one on the team is gay?” Prokop said. “The point is that it’s for the fans. For me, it means a lot to play in them to show my community and be a representative on the ice.”
While education is important, Prokop said any real change in the NHL when it comes to inclusion will start with other players coming out. He’s not putting any timeline or pressure on that. He didn’t have one. But that’s when players in the league will see a different perspective, get more comfortable with it.
“Otherwise, it’s always going to be a story,” Prokop said. “I also can see why guys don’t want to come out. Especially in the NHL. They’ve been very successful, so why change? I kind of saw that from the perspective when the whole Pride jersey story came out. My phone was blowing up. I don’t think guys want to have to deal with that. There was a responsibility for me to talk about these topics. I don’t think guys want to do that. I can see it from that side, why they don’t want to come out.
“I don’t think anything is going to change unless someone else does. Someone else will step up. It’s only a matter of time. I thought there’d maybe be two, three of us by now. But it hasn’t happened. But I know there’s going to be someone else soon. It’s math. There’s what, 700 players in the league? There’s definitely a few more.”
While there have been some derogatory comments coming from the stands on a few occasions, Prokop has been encouraged there have been none from opposing players.
“Zero,” he said.
Most of the feedback he’s received, even on social media, has been positive. And it’s not just the comments like Matthews’ that stick with him. Two high schoolers in Seattle, Kaitlin and Jo, reached out to him over Instagram. They are part of the LGBTQ+ community and were struggling.
“Like everyone, they just wanted someone to talk to,” Prokop said.
Part of Prokop’s pregame routine is usually to hang by the bench and listen to music. On many occasions, Kaitlin and Jo would come by and the three of them would just chat for 10, 12 minutes. They’re the fans that Prokop saw every game above the tunnel on his way to the dressing room. They’ve stayed in touch. Prokop even did a Zoom meeting with their high school class last month. “They have a special place in my heart,” he said.
When, and if, Prokop makes his NHL debut, he says he’ll have a special secret plan for them.
Whether Prokop lives his NHL dream remains to be seen. He’s praised the Predators for their support from the first time he did a group video call with the staff. Former NHLer Mark Borowiecki, now a development coach, has been someone Prokop has leaned on often, not only for on-ice advice but for help getting through things mentally.
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Scott Nichol, the Predators’ assistant GM, likes Prokop’s potential.
“Big right-shot defensemen that can skate, move the puck. They don’t grow on trees,” he said. “He just needs to polish up his game in some areas in the defensive zone. He’s got the tools. He’s got the skating ability. It’s just patience and embrace the process.”
Prokop is grateful for his support group, from his parents, Al and Nicole, to his brother, Josh, and sister, Alanna. He’s kept in touch with Heather Lefebvre, who is a specialist in hockey engagement and alumni relations with the Oilers Entertainment Group. They talk almost every day. What sticks out to Lefebvre is how young Prokop was when he came out (19), and while he wears this “trailblazer” cap, he’s still standing alone.
“I think this generation is more ready for it than past generations, for sure,” Lefebvre said. “It says a lot to me that nobody else has come out in the year and a half since he has. He’s the only openly gay player under NHL contract, but he’s not the only gay player under NHL contract.
“That’s where I think we have work to do. Is it great that he’s been accepted and can do his thing? Yes. But he looks at the positives, which makes me really happy for him. But that doesn’t mean there’s no negative.”
Prokop takes the positives in his off-ice life, too. He lives with Alanna in the offseason back home in Edmonton. He’s found teammates to share in his hobbies, like golf (he plays 40 to 50 rounds a year). He loves to read, from biographies to sci-fi. He watches basketball more than hockey and has more than 25 jerseys. He cooks. He got into puzzles during the pandemic and is bullish about doing them on his own.
Prokop also feels comfortable getting out there on the dating scene and not having to hide it from teammates.
“Obviously, the lifestyle of a hockey player is tough for some people,” he said. “I’m trying to find the right person to connect with. I’m a softie, a romantic guy. I love love. I’m always on the lookout for that right person to spend the rest of my life with.”
Prokop doesn’t see the label of being the first openly gay player under NHL contract as a weight. It’s more of a responsibility. He has a platform and wants to use it. He’s realistic, “dreaming about winning the community service award more than the Norris Trophy.”
Making the AHL jump or someday the NHL jump won’t define him.
“One of my main goals when I came out is that if I could have an impact on one person outside of my family and friends in my lifetime, I’ve done my job,” he said. “I think I’ve done that and more. And I want to continue to do that.”
(Top photo courtesy of Oilers Entertainment Group)
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