A year ago, defenseman Luke Prokop was lost. He was a Nashville Predators draft pick with nowhere to play, as the pandemic had delayed the start of the 2020-21 WHL season. He was at home – and weighing whether to tell the world he was gay.
A year later, truly everything has changed for Prokop, 19, who now plays for the Edmonton Oil Kings. In July 2021, he became the first drafted-and-signed NHL player to come out, and his life has transformed since that moment. What is Prokop up to now, and how does he feel about the response since he came out? What's changed about his hockey career day to day?
He recently caught up with The Hockey News to share his story.
THE HOCKEY NEWS: Was hockey always what you wanted to do, or did you have other major interests as a kid?
LUKE PROKOP: Not really. When I look back at my childhood, hockey was always a staple. My brother is two years older than me. He played from a very young age, my dad played, both my grandparents played from a decently young age. So it was just natural that I would get into the sport. Around maybe 12, 13, I started to realize I was a pretty good hockey player and maybe I could create something out of it.
THN: Did you always know you were going to be a defenseman, or did you ever think about playing any other position?
PROKOP: No, not really. From a young age, it was more my dad who realized that I tended to stay back a little bit more than trying to rush off and get a bunch of goals. So that's what made me more of a defenseman than a forward. I never had interest in playing the other positions.
THN: Is there a certain player you have always tried to emulate?
PROKOP: Growing up, it was always Shea Weber. Ever since the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver was when I started really to focus on his game and see a lot of similarities between me and him. I try to emulate a lot of his playing style and put it into my game.
THN: Did you know you were gay at a young age, or is it something you came to realize later in your teens?
PROKOP: More so my teens. When I moved to Kelowna at 14 to improve my stock for the Bantam draft, moved away from home with a different group of guys, that was around the time when I started to realize I may be a bit different in terms of my sexuality. I didn't really know a whole ton about it. I was questioning a lot of things at the time. I started to get more and more comfortable with it as I as I aged into my teens.
THN: Given the documented history of homophobia in hockey culture, were you ever hesitant to keep playing when you were in your closeted years?
PROKOP: Yeah, for sure. The language was definitely an issue, but to see nobody openly out in the sport was hard, to not have someone to look up to who was currently playing in the NHL or playing professional hockey. It just made me hesitant on, if I did come out, if I would be able to still make it there. If there were people who didn't like that I came out or were against it, would it affect my career chances of making the NHL?
THN: Seeing stories like Brock McGillis coming out in 2016 and Yanic Duplessis in 2020, did it create momentum for you to come out?
PROKOP: I hadn't done a whole lot of research about other players coming out before I had thought about doing it. I didn't know really at all about Brock’s story until I met him a couple of weeks before my announcement came out. And then I heard about Yanic through social media, and it helped just knowing that I had some allies, some friends out there that I could talk to if I was struggling through things.
THN: A year ago, there was no major junior being played because of COVID, and you weren’t yet out about your sexuality. Where was your head at then versus now?
PROKOP: There were a lot of questions a year ago, especially with hockey, coming out, there was just a whole lot of stuff going on in my head. Now, I'm a lot more free. I'm clear minded, I’m a lot more confident than I was a year ago. If you ask any of my friends or my family, I think they would echo that.
THN: At least publicly, the reaction when you came out seemed extremely positive. Did you sense that? What was that experience like?
PROKOP: The reaction was definitely a lot more positive than I had anticipated. As human beings, we’re programmed to think of the bad things that can happen. About a week before, I was thinking about all the negative comments I was going to get and questioning if I really wanted to do this, but that day, on Monday, it was probably the most memorable day of my life so far, the most positive day of my life so far. The amount of support I got, not just from the hockey community, but people everywhere, – I was getting messages from individuals in Sweden, or Australia. My story had reached so far, and I was inspiring so many people. It was very humbling for me to see that.
THN: Does it carry extra weight being the first player to come out while under an NHL contract?
PROKP: I think so. I don't like to think of it as a whole ton of weight because my personality, I believe, has always been like that. I've always wanted to help people and be a role model. No matter if it's for young kids who were thinking about coming out to just young hockey players in general, I've always wanted to be a role model. So, it's not a huge ton of weight, but it's something that I take very seriously. I try to connect with as many people who reach out to me as I can, whatever they need, if they just need someone to tell their story to, or another ear, or some advice, or anything like that. I'm always willing to do that.
THN: How different has this hockey season felt, playing as an out gay man?
PROKOP: It’s been really cool. I've had numerous conversations, with my friends, on the team, just about anything. I have a great boyfriend now, and they always want to know how he's doing and know about his lifestyle and our relationship and stuff. So just to see them being so involved like that has been really cool. I don't have to hide anything from them, either. I can be fully open with them, I can talk to them about whatever I want. So it's been awesome this year so far.
THN: From a pure hockey standpoint, and just looking to the future of your career and your path to the NHL, what’s the No. 1 skill you want to improve to accelerate your path to the NHL?
PROKOP: I think for me, I realized that if I were to make the NHL, I wouldn't be in much of an offensive role. It would be secondary to what my job would be in the NHL: more of a shutdown, hard-nosed kind of D-man to play against. So, I'm trying to generate and build up some of that aggression in my own zone, and I think I've done a good job with that so far this year, and I want to keep growing that part of my game.
THN: Given your desire to help people – are there big plans for you coming down the pipeline in terms of mentorship or charity work or public speaking? Anything that you're looking to do? Or is it too hard to plan that in the middle of a hockey season?
PROKOP: I already had started the Shots for Impact with Kids Help Phone a couple of (months) back, so I'm pretty busy doing that. Well, not hugely busy, because I'm just playing hockey and shooting pucks (donating $10 per shot), but not a whole ton other than that, I try to keep press and media and brand stuff pretty late during the season, because I'm a hockey player. The reason that I'm getting that attention is because of my hockey skills. So I want to keep making sure that those are up to my standards before I do anything else.
This is an extended version of an interview that appeared in the 2022 Money & Power issue edition of The Hockey News.