‘This is who I am’: Predators prospect Luke Prokop comes out by Pierre LeBrun, 19 July 2021
Luke Prokop was driving his car, so he couldn’t totally freak out.
But man, what he was feeling at the moment.
The 2020 third-round draft pick of the Nashville Predators was on a call with the NHL club’s key front office people including GM David Poile.
Their message to Prokop? They were all proud of him. They had his back. He didn’t have to worry about anything.
“When I think about the feeling of being free, that was the closest I think I’ve been to it so far,” Prokop, 19, said.
“I turned up the music as loud as I could. I was wearing sunglasses, I started to cry, tears of joy, I didn’t want anyone to see me crying while I was driving. But I was blasting the tunes and slamming on my steering wheel. It was amazing.’’
No doubt Prokop had wondered for nearly a year how that call with the Predators would go ever since they drafted him 73rd last fall.
“I can’t thank them enough for supporting me,’’ Prokop said.
He had just taken his next important step in a process that began in March 2020.
Telling people in his own world that he’s gay.
Now, with this interview in The Athletic, he is ready to tell the entire world.
“Very brave young man,’’ Poile said. “It took a lot of courage. I’m proud that he did that. It’s got to be exciting for him to be taking this step. This is a big story and hopefully it helps and encourages others in similar situations. It’s a big deal.’’
There has never been an openly gay active player in the NHL. Amazingly, this 6-foot-5, 221-pound defenceman is coming out before his first pro camp.
And yes, part of the reason Prokop is coming out is to help others. But first and foremost, it was to lift a 100-pound anvil off his back.
Just being able to tell people around him over the past year has been freeing.
“It’s been very special, talking to my friends, my family, my coaches, my agents,’’ Prokop said. “And them being very supportive, me coming out and being OK with who I was. I think it’s been translating a lot into my summer and my summer training. I’ve noticed myself being a lot more confident on the ice.
“Being able to truly be who I am. This is the best I’ve ever felt in the summer and I think a large part of that is due to this process of me coming out.’’
Prokop doesn’t want to wonder anymore.
“I don’t want to have to walk into the gym or to the arena or just to practice, and keep thinking, ‘Who knows? Who doesn’t?’ This is who I am,” Prokop said.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a big topic of conversation, that’s not what I want it to be. It’s just, ‘Hey, here’s who I am.’ It gets it off my chest. So I don’t have to worry and wonder about other people.”
It’s something he talked about with Bayne Pettinger, an NHL player agent who came out last year.
“I don’t really have to deal with that anymore. I feel a lot more free. I can just go on the ice and be myself,” Prokop said.
Still, to do it at 19?
“I think to do this at Luke’s age is so courageous,” said Brock McGillis, who in 2016 became the first openly gay male pro hockey player. “Part of me is a little envious. He gets to live most of his life as a gay man. I didn’t have that ability.”
McGillis, 37, was 10 years removed from his pro hockey career when he came out. The hyper-masculine culture of men’s hockey made him feel like being openly gay would have been an impediment to his career and a distraction to his teammates.
“I can’t wait to see … I mean, if he was a first-round pick in the WHL, a third-round pick, signed, in the NHL, I can’t wait to see what this kid does with that weight off his shoulders.’’
Which is indeed something to think about. Prokop has reached these hockey heights carrying this burden. Now he’s free.
“It’s a physical burden, an emotional burden, a psychological burden that is lifted,” said McGillis. “Now, will there be other sides to that? Yeah, probably. But the biggest one is gone. … You feel like you’re on a cloud and you’re soaring and it’s life-changing.’’
Pettinger sees it as a great step forward for hockey.
“To have an NHL drafted/signed player speak his truth hopefully inspires other young players to see that hockey can be a safe space and accepting of everyone regardless of sexual orientation,” said Pettinger.
Both McGillis and Pettinger have offered Prokop support and guidance over the last little while. It’s made a world of difference.
“They’ve been extremely helpful,” said Prokop. “For them to give me guidance, I can’t thank them enough. They’ve been huge supporters. I call them my friends now.’’
And Prokop will be there for them, too.
“I want to make sure that it’s not always about them being there for me,” he said. “We’re going to go through this together. I want to make sure those guys know they can talk to me as much as I talk to them.’’
There’s a reason Prokop wears an ‘A’ on his Calgary Hitmen sweater. Leadership. Character.
It’s what Prokop calls it. His process. It began when the pandemic shut down the WHL season in March 2020.
He went home to Edmonton and decided it was time.
“I was just in a real place of comfort with being who I was,” said Prokop. “I felt I was able to start telling people I was gay and that people would be OK with it.’’
The first person he told was his older sister Alanna. Then Luke told his mom, Nicole, followed by close friends.
“The most difficult one was definitely my brother and my dad,’’ Prokop said. “Just because I played hockey with Josh and I didn’t know how he would react, especially being his teammate for two years in Calgary. And with my dad, he’s a very type A person, and you just never know what you’re going to get from people.
“But they’ve been so supportive and very loving and caring in trying to help me with what I want to do. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation with me coming out.’’
His older brother, Josh, was Hitmen captain this past season, his last in major junior.
“It meant a great deal to me that Luke was able to confide in me and be comfortable enough to come out to me,” Josh said. “Being his teammate is something we both will cherish forever, but he will always be my brother first and I can’t express enough how much it means to me and our relationship that he was able to communicate his true self to me.”
His dad, Al Prokop, said when his son came out to him he went through a whole cycle of emotions, including at first being surprised.
“And then you turn to a little bit of sadness in the sense of being sad for Luke that he’s had to deal with this himself for so long, and not being there to help him,’’ said Al Prokop.
At this point in our interview, Al’s voice cracked. Tears flowed. He wished he had been there for his son all these years so Luke wouldn’t have had to carry it alone.
“Not knowing how long he had to deal with it. So there’s that sadness component. Then it turned to just how proud you are of him. The bravery that he shows in being able to do it. It’s like a whirlwind, and it’s not over in a day or two, you go through it in your head for weeks and months.’’
Telling friends and teammates
The process continued with telling close friends and a few teammates.
Childhood pal Joel Sexsmith of the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels has known Prokop since they were both 9 years old. He was one of the first friends Prokop told in the spring of 2020.
“Obviously, you want to look out for your best friend,’’ Sexsmith said. “Being a hockey player, I kind of know some of the stigmas that come around with something like this, so my first instinct was telling him, ‘I’m proud of you. I’m happy for you. And I want you to be ok.’”
Watching his best friend handle things has been eye-opening for Sexsmith.
“Seeing him come from a lot of despair, a lot of anxiety. For me, it’s almost alarming to know he held it in all these years. It’s amazing now to see the progression and him being so comfortable with himself to the extent where he’s ready to do this.’’
Prokop confided with three of his Hitmen teammates before this past season.
“They’ve been really great,” Prokop said. “They kept asking me during the season if I needed any extra support or if there was a conversation where sexuality came up, they made sure I was OK. They really tried to make an effort in making me feel like it was OK for me to be who I was. I can’t thank those three guys enough. They also know that I don’t want that special treatment.
“Who I love and who I go home with at night, that’s private and it shouldn’t matter anymore. I’m just there to play hockey, I’m there to win a championship. I’m there to hang out with the boys. That’s who I am.’’
Sean Tschigerl was one of those teammates. Riley Fiddler-Schultz was another.
“Luke is an amazing friend of mine and nothing has changed between us,” said Tschigerl. “But just for hockey and his life, it’s just going to be that much easier now. He’s going to enjoy it that much more.”
Added Fiddler-Schultz: “I respect Luke as a teammate, a hockey player and a friend. And as a friend, all I want for Luke is to be happy.’’
Dressing room banter
Hockey’s culture still has so much work to do to make members of the LGBTQ+ community feel safe.
Prokop had to hear things over the years in the dressing room.
“It was definitely difficult,” he said. “I was guilty of it sometimes, too. No one’s perfect and I would make the odd comment, too, that was probably offside. It was when I started playing in Calgary and noticed the locker-room banter, and I thought about it, ‘What if I did come out?’ Some of my teammates who are saying these words that were offensive to our (LGBTQ+) community and stuff, would they be accepting or would they not want to be my teammate anymore, would they be uncomfortable playing with me?’’’
So many things went through Prokop’s mind at the time.
“But I’ve grown out of that in a sense and had the attitude of ‘I’m going to come out regardless of the way people around me talk.’ But there’s going to be a reason why I don’t necessarily associate with you anymore. I believe hockey has a long way to go still in that sense. There’s some change to be made. And hopefully I can start some of it.’’
Sexsmith agreed hockey still needs to change when it comes to the dressing room and the culture of the sport.
“I honestly can’t praise Luke enough for being able to pass off certain comments maybe in the past, just ignoring ignorance. You know, it’s not intentional ignorance by most guys, there’s just a lack of awareness, not enough education around it right now. I think this will bring a lot of attention to it.’’
The NHL world
Prokop’s coming out process eventually led to a meeting in June 2020 with his agents from The Sports Corporation in Edmonton led by Gerry Johannson.
“When we sat down, I knew he was going to tell us something really important but I had no idea this was it,” Johannson said. “When he did, I was so impressed. First of all, that he trusted us enough to tell us. And then, just really impressed with his courage.”
It was in that meeting with his agents that Prokop made a gigantic decision.
“When we talked about this, my agents said, ‘OK, you kind of have two options here — you can either keep it private, just let your friends and family know and the people you want to know. Or you can come out, be a leader in a sense and show people it’s OK,’’’ Prokop said.
A leader. That appealed to Prokop.
“That’s always been my style. I’ve always said I want to have a career in hockey where I was able to make a change in the game (rather) than have this career full of accolades. That’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. The part of me being 19 and not even having gone to my first pro camp yet, it’s also to show … that you can still be who you are while playing the game. You don’t have to be judged for what your sexuality is. It’s OK nowadays to play professional sports and be who you are.”
Johannson eventually got Prokop on the phone with Brian Burke, whose son Brendan made huge news in 2009 when he came out while working as a student manager for the Miami University men’s hockey team.
Brendan died in a car accident in 2010 and in 2012, Brian Burke and son Patrick founded the You Can Play campaign to fight homophobia in sports.
“He wanted to congratulate me and say how proud he was of me,” Prokop said of his chat with the Penguins president of hockey operations. “We chatted for a little bit. It was really cool to talk to him.’’
“I wouldn’t go into what I said to Luke other than what I would say to any gay person who is coming out, it’s a big burden off your shoulders,” Burke said. “In Luke’s case, I think he’ll find his teammates, players and officials completely, and I mean completely, supportive. But he’s going to have to deal with the social media idiots and I think he’s quite prepared for that. He seems like a very mature young man.’’
Prokop knows it won’t be the entire hockey world that’s ready for this.
“I’m not naive, I know there’s going to be people who question it and get upset about my decision,’’ said Prokop. “But I have a really good group of people around me who can support me. I’m going to try not to read those negative comments, which I think will help a lot.
“It’s sad that it’s still out there in the world, but it’s a reality. I just feel ready now to deal with it.’’
Which brings us back to Brendan Burke’s legacy still being felt 12 years after coming out.
Pettinger talked about the impact of watching Brendan Burke do an interview on TSN back in 2009 and how it moved him. McGillis formed a friendship with Brendan, which also had an impact on his eventual decision to come out.
Brian Burke is proud of his son’s continued legacy.
“You feel Brendan’s fingerprints all over this,” Burke said. “Just like some kid coming out in 10 years will say, ‘I remember when Luke Prokop did.’’’
After the call with Burke came a call last month from Predators assistant GM Brian Poile as the NHL world continued to become aware of Prokop’s story. Brian Poile then organized a larger call with his dad, David, plus front office members Jeff Kealty, Scott Nichol and Rob Scuderi.
“They said what I’m doing is a great thing and I’m going to inspire a lot of people,” Prokop said.
Brian Poile says they wanted to make sure Prokop felt part of the Predators family in every sense of the word.
“We simply wanted to call Luke so he could hear he had our love, care and support,” said the assistant GM. “We reminded Luke he was part of our Predators family, as with all our players and staff, we care about them as people first and foremost. We shared how courageous he was in his decision to come out publicly, how proud we were of Luke being true to himself, and he had our full support moving forward together.’’
Prokop is only 19. He’s most likely going back to junior hockey next season. His pro career isn’t here quite yet. The last thing anyone wants is to burden him just as he unburdened himself.
But there’s no other way to look at this: It is huge.
The NHL has never had an openly gay player. Prokop is telling his story before his first pro camp.
“I think it’s a massive deal,” said McGillis. “But to have Luke come out, who’s an NHL pick, who is going to play professionally, who is likely to have a career in the sport, that’s massive. That’s going to impact lives.’’
That’s the goal, Prokop said.
“If I can inspire or help make a difference to one person, then I’ve done my job in wanting to create change and to create an environment where it’s healthy for players to come out now. … I’m just trying to show that I want there to be a healthy environment. So that if other players do want to come out, they can be their true, authentic selves.’’
There’s that leadership again.
“It’s amazing what Luke is doing. I am so proud of his courage and strength that he has showed leading up to this,” Josh Prokop said. “The amount of athletes and people he will touch speaks to his character and how great of a person he is.”
The message is a simple one in many ways.
“It shouldn’t matter that Luke is gay,’’ said Sexsmith. “It’s awesome that he is. It’s unbelievable that he’s taking this step. But what’s most important is that you can be gay and you can play hockey. There’s no problem with that. That’s what I’m proud of him for raising awareness.’’
Added McGillis: “I’m hoping that it leads to more young adults or even NHL players begin to accept who they are and then learn to love the fact that they are gay, that they are bisexual, that they are trans, non-binary. When they do that, they’re going to be happier. I don’t want to put that pressure on Luke to have to carry this torch, but at the same time, I just think the visibility of it has such a massive impact. I think he can just go and play hockey and that alone is a powerful statement.’’
Prokop’s world will forever change now that he’s come out to the entire world.
But the bigger moment, perhaps, was when Prokop accepted who he was.
“I feel like I’m in a really good space right now,’’ said Prokop, “and ready to take on the world, really.’’
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