Predators prospect Prokop comes out as gay, makes NHL history

Luke Prokop made history Monday, becoming the first player under contract to an NHL team to come out as gay.

The Nashville Predators defenseman prospect came out in a social media post.

“Hi everyone. While the past year and a half has been crazy, it has also given me the chance to find my true self. I am no longer scared to hide who I am.

“Today I am proud to publicly tell everyone that I am gay.

“It has been quite the journey to get to this point in my life, but I could not be happier with my decision to come out. From a young age I have dreamed of being an NHL player, and I believe that living my authentic life will allow me to bring my whole self to the rink and improve my chances of fulfilling my dreams.

“I wouldn’t be able to do this without my amazing family, friends, and agents – who have known this about me and met me with love and support every step of the way. I hope that in sharing who I am I can help other people see that gay people are welcome in the hockey community, as we work to make sure that hockey truly is for everyone.

“I may be new to the community, but I am eager to learn about the strong and resilient people who came before me and paved the way so I could be more comfortable today. This is just the beginning of my journey and I am excited to see where it takes me, both in hockey and in life.

“Thank you!”

Video: Luke Prokop comes out as first gay player in the NHL

The response from the NHL was immediate, starting with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who spoke to Prokop by phone.

“People, unless they can be their authentic true selves, can’t be the best they can be,” Commissioner Bettman said. “Anybody who is connected to the NHL, whether it’s front office, whether it’s coaching and player development, whether it’s players, we want everybody to know that whoever you are, you have a place in our family.”

Prokop was selected by the Predators in the third round (No. 73) of the 2020 NHL Draft. He has played the past four seasons with Calgary of the Western Hockey League, scoring six points (two goals, four assists) in 15 games in 2020-21. The 19-year-old native of Edmonton signed a three-year, entry-level contract with Nashville on Dec. 9.

Commissioner Bettman said the most important sentiment he could impart to Prokop was one of support, that the NHL is behind him, there to help in any way it can. The NHL has worked to increase its inclusivity via various initiatives, including: Hockey is for Everyone; a longstanding relationship with You Can Play, which works to ensure the safety and inclusion of all who play sports, including LGBTQ athletes, coaches and fans; and team Pride Nights.

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But though women at high levels of hockey have come out — including former United States women’s team captain Meghan Duggan, who was named New Jersey Devils manager of player development May 19 — until now no player under contract to an NHL team has done the same.

“I told him that what he was doing was courageous and that I believed that it was important for him to have the support of the NHL family, which he will have,” Commissioner Bettman said. “And if he has any issues and problems, he has my cell phone number and he should feel free to call me.”

Members of the Predators got a chance to correspond with Prokop in the past few days, including defenseman Roman Josi by text and defenseman Mark Borowiecki by phone, each sending along messages of support for their potential future teammate.

“We’re obviously very proud of him for taking that step,” Josi, the Nashville captain, said by phone from Switzerland. “Our message as a team [is that] we’re obviously very supportive of him. We just reached out and told him [we’ll help with] whatever he needs and that we’re proud of him. It’s a big step for him and we fully support him.”

Asked about how the Predators organization would welcome Prokop, Josi said, “I think it’s the whole League that’s going to be extremely welcoming. … Like we’ve always said, Hockey is for Everyone, and I think the organization with the Predators really lives that. The organization, the team, everyone in the front office is going to be fully behind him.

“… I’m not trying to speak for him, but he just wants to be one of the guys. Like every other teammate. It’s obviously big news, but I think for us and for him, then he’s going to come to camp and he’s going to be one of our teammates like everyone else.”

Borowiecki, who knew of Prokop but had not spoken to him previously, said, “I wanted to make sure that he knew that I’m available as a resource, and most importantly as a friend. LGBTQ equality and inclusion, especially in sport, is something my wife and I are really passionate about.

“To see the bravery and courage that it takes for Luke, a young man who’s not an established player in this league, to come out and be so open and honest, I think it’s just incredible and honestly very, very impressive.”

Predators executives echoed the sentiments of the players.

“The Nashville Predators organization is proud of Luke for the courage he is displaying in coming out today and we will support him unequivocally in the days, weeks, and years to come as he continues to develop as a prospect,” president and CEO Sean Henry said. “A long-stated goal in our organization is equality for all, including the LGBTQ community, and it is important that Luke feels comfortable and part of an inclusive environment as he moves forward in his career.”

General manager David Poile said, “Luke is a valued prospect of the Nashville Predators and we think he has a bright future. We want Luke to become a successful hockey player, and we understand his ability to be out comfortably will help him achieve his goals on and off the ice. We are committed to ensuring nothing stands in the way of his ability. His courage is an inspiration to us, and to the LGBTQ community in Nashville.”

That courage was lauded across the NHL. 

“I think my response to today’s announcement from Luke is gratitude,” NHL senior director of player safety Patrick Burke said. “I’m grateful to Luke for being the first one to take this big step and invite the broader hockey community into his personal life. I’m grateful, just grateful to him.

“My personal response is one of celebration and joy. I’m happy about this. This is a player who gets to begin his career open and out and without hiding things. Without fears about who knows and who doesn’t. And that, to me, is worthy of celebration.”

Burke, along with Brian Kitts and Glenn Witman, founded You Can Play in 2012, with the NHL starting its relationship with the organization in 2013. The mission was particularly important to Burke because of his brother, Brendan, a manager of the Miami University (Ohio) hockey team, who came out in 2009. He died in a car accident in 2010 at 21 years old.

Burke said he hopes Prokop’s decision eases the path for anyone else in the NHL community, the hockey community, or the greater community who feels unable to share their true selves, mentioning how thrilled Brendan would be at this moment. He also noted the similarity in style between Prokop’s Instagram post and one from Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib, who with a post June 21 became the first active NFL player to come out.

“Individuals like Bayne Pettinger (an agent who came out in November) publicly drew a bright line back to (former hockey player) Brock McGillis, who publicly drew a bright line back to my brother, who had his own heroes who came out,” Burke said. “There’s now going to be athletes in the hockey community of all ages looking at Luke, and the hope is that if and when they’re ready, they say, ‘It worked for him, I think I’m ready to do the same.'”

Don Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, said in a statement that the organization, and the players, are there to support Prokop as he works toward joining them in the NHL.

“NHL players commend the courage demonstrated by Luke Prokop to disclose his truth,” Fehr said. “We know the NHL hockey community will support Luke as he strives toward his goal of playing in the NHL, and we applaud the example he is setting for those in the game of hockey and beyond.

“Luke’s announcement also reminds us how important it is to ensure a welcoming and safe environment for all who play the game. Hockey is for everyone, including the LGBTQ+ community.”

For Nora Cothren and others, the joy at Prokop’s announcement was palpable.

Cothren played hockey growing up and is an LGBTQ sports advocate who has worked with both You Can Play and the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. She said a burden was lifted from her shoulders when she came out to her teammates. Her game improved. Her life, in many ways, simplified.

That’s the hope for Prokop, that he will never have to hide, never have the stress of living an inauthentic life, and that his career can soar. That being himself will make him a better hockey player.

“Having to work to hide your identity and lie and keep track of stories is exhausting,” Cothren said. “And I anticipate his skill level rising even further than it is at this point because he doesn’t have to put that energy into hiding or worrying about it leaking or anything like that. Now he can continue on his journey as his authentic self and likely play the best hockey he’s played in his life.”

And now, for kids playing the sport, she said, there is a role model within the NHL world, a person they can point to who might be like them.

“It’s a really big step,” Cothren said. “The NHL has been a league that hasn’t had an out active player or retired player, of the four major sports leagues, the only league not to have that. So this is huge for me. It’s a wonderful thing to see that the League has embraced this so much, especially over the past eight years or so. 

“It means a lot to those of us in the LGBTQ community who have grown up in hockey and questioned our ability to belong and to be our true selves within the sport. Being able to see this at the highest level is going to be game-changing for young LGBTQ kids who are playing hockey now.”

Cothren called Monday a starting point, emphasizing the reflection and intentional work the NHL has put in to get to this point and the work that will continue into the future.

Borowiecki said he wasn’t sure if there was space or acceptance for an LGBTQ athlete in the NHL when he was growing up, but the 32-year-old said he has witnessed his sport move forward and called this moment a great step.

“To see this sport evolve where a young man feels comfortable enough to do this, I think it’s great,” Borowiecki said. “I think it’s the growth of our sport. I think it’s the growth of all sports in general. Sports need to be a safe space for everyone, and hockey needs to go along with that.”

Borowiecki said he wanted to make clear that Prokop is part of the future with the Predators and that he will be welcomed and accepted in the organization.

Fostering that environment has been the mission of Kim Davis, NHL senior executive vice president, social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, since she arrived at the League in 2017.

“I think it’s a brave decision,” Davis said. “And it really affirms our efforts to ensure that inclusion is a movement and not a moment. I think so because, above all, I believe that feeling safe in a team environment happens when you feel seen and supported.

“To me what Luke has done is opened up the space for other people struggling with being comfortable with and normalizing an aspect of how they show up and move in the world. I think that is going to go such a long way in our sport.”

Davis helped establish the NHL Pride Employee Resource Group in 2020, one of four ERGs the League created to promote diversity and provide a voice for underrepresented populations, with NHL BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color), NHL Women and NHL Young Professionals the other three. It’s part of an effort that has been going on for years within the NHL as the League has built to this moment.

“Luke created ‘the moment’ by giving the League the opportunity to show where it stands,” said Hannah Readnour, leader of NHL Pride. “It is harder for an organization to do that in the hypothetical and seem sincere. [Commissioner Bettman] has set expectations and in doing so answered the question “Is the League ready?”

She said she believes it is.

Readnour emphasized the enormity of Prokop’s announcement, mentioning Willie O’Ree, the first Black player to play in an NHL game, and Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier. She also talked about the importance of support for Prokop, ways his message can be promoted, and the ripple effects that can have throughout hockey at all levels.

“For people who are hockey fans, even just the amplification of the message is a sign of support,” Readnour said. “Something we say at the ERG all the time is the queer community is often invisible, but so are allies. … I think the important thing to know is that small symbols of support make a huge difference, and it might be making a difference to somebody that you do not know is in the community.”

It can be a social media post, a retweet with a thumbs up or a pride flag. It can be a call from a teammate or a future teammate. Or from the NHL Commissioner. 

“[It’s] the youth player who sees their coach say, ‘How cool is this?'” Readnour said. “But also, this guy came out and all those NHL players said it was OK. Maybe it is OK for me to support my player. Luke isn’t the only role model here. We all have the opportunity to be role models in some small way.

“Luke is the hero, but allies need role models too.”

And that is what many in the NHL community have vowed to be, supporting Luke and all LGBTQ athletes and hockey players.

“My own belief — and this is as a parent, as a grandparent — is that people need to be comfortable in their own skin and people need to be accepted for who they are,” Commissioner Bettman said. “And it all comes down to respect. All people deserve to be respected.”

Ultimately, the message from many of those in the hockey world to Prokop came down to a few simple words.

“Thank you,” Cothren said. “Thank you for letting us all in.”

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