It's always a sure sign of the approaching end of summer when NFL, NHL, and NBA training camps begin. This year will be especially profound for the NFL and NHL, with Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders anticipated to take the gridiron this fall, and become the first gay NFL player to play in a regular season game.
Nashville Predators' prospect Luke Prokop, who came out earlier this summer, hopes to be the first gay player to hit the ice in the NHL this fall. Further, no NHL player, active or retired, has come out publicly, so this is big deal in the hockey world.
Prokop, who is 19, made his personal announcement on Instagram last month writing, "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."
Exactly one year ago, I spoke with Brock Weston, who, fed up with his hockey teammates' homophobia and rampant gay slurs, decided to try to end their behavior by boldly coming out. Weston, 25, graduated last summer from Marian University of Wisconsin, where he served as an assistant captain on the NCAA Division III men's hockey team for two years.
"Growing up in hockey, the slurs were used before I can even remember, and I know that because from the time I can remember, it was normal, and I didn't even bat an eye because it was so normal. I also hear it all the time from parents in youth hockey," Weston said.
Prokop explained why he came out, writing, "I was lying in bed one night, had just deleted a dating app for the fourth or fifth time, and I was extremely frustrated because I couldn't be my true authentic self. In that moment I said, 'Enough is enough. I'm accepting who I am. I want to live the way I want to, and I want to accept myself as a gay man.'"
I had the opportunity to speak to Prokop in between the Predators' practice sessions on Wednesday, and I asked him if he encountered homophobic slurs during his career, and if that might have been one of the reasons for him to come out?
"Yes, obviously it's sort of a known thing that homophobic slurs occur, not just in hockey but in a lot of sports, so my hope was that by coming out, I could have an impact on that, and help shift the language. Since I've come out, I'm happy to say that I haven't encountered any slurs."
I also asked Prokop if he has heard from any other hockey players since he came out, and if he hopes that his courage in coming forward will help others do the same? "It's really difficult to say, since each player who is gay has their own and very different story, so it all depends on their circumstance. For example, I had a very strong support system, and not everyone has that. And I have not heard from any other players, but I'm happy to hear from them, and help them in anyway."
Finally, I wanted to know who Prokop looked up to, not only as a hero in hockey, but also his personal life. "In terms of hockey, and as a defenseman, it's Shea Weber (Montreal Canadians defenseman and team captain). I remember watching him in the Vancouver Olympics, and just being impressed with the way he played the game, and what he brought to the rink."
And personally, it's been Brock McGillis (former goaltender in the Canadian Hockey League and an out advocate for LGBTQ+ athletes). "I'd spoken a lot with Brock throughout my whole process of coming out, and he was really good in lending me some advice to do with media, what's going to happen the day of, the day after, the month after, year after," Prokop said. "He's just a really good source I have, and a friend, I'll say, as well. We're in touch daily, so I'm very thankful to have him as well."
For the time being, Prokop is busy concentrating on his game, and getting acclimated to the city of Nashville. "It's been great to see the city, meet the guys, and the coaches and staff. It's been really cool to have received so many messages and support from around the NHL. I'm now concentrating on getting my game to its best level, making the team, and hopefully having a productive season helping the Predators."
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.