Thursday, February 22, 2024

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.

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 questionss. 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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