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Prokop reflects on year since coming out as gay

Since he made the announcement on social media July 19, 2021, Prokop was traded by one Western Hockey League team to another, won that league’s championship, played in the Canadian Hockey League’s Memorial Cup tournament, wore rainbow-hued skates, received two humanitarian awards and became an inspiration and role model within the LGBTQ+ community worldwide, both inside and outside the sport.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” the 20-year-old Nashville Predators prospect said. “It seems like it was a long time ago, but it’s been nothing but a positive experience for me. It’s been really amazing the way my teammates have been with me, even opponents. Some would come up to me during warmup and congratulate me. “

Prokop said the 2021-22 season was “by far the most fun year of hockey I’ve ever had.” He played free, unshackled from a secret and finally able to be his true self from him to family, friends and teammates.

The feeling of freedom contributed to him having 35 points (11 goals, 24 assists) in 58 regular-season WHL games with the Calgary Hitmen and Edmonton Oil Kings, who traded for the defenseman in October and brought him to his hometown team.

Prokop helped propel Edmonton to the Ed Chynoweth Cup when it defeated Seattle in six games for the WHL championship. In the playoffs, he was tied for sixth on the Oil Kings with 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in 19 games.

“I think my confidence just kind of went through the roof after my coming out,” he said, “and it’s been really great to see my performance on the ice grow in a positive direction and be a lot more consistent than it had been in the past.”

Prokop’s performance and presence are also helping to debunk a long-held belief in sports, that having an LBGTQ+ player on a team would destroy its chemistry and create tension and suspicion in the locker room.

Oil Kings forward Josh Williams said that Prokop joining the team had the opposite effect.

“Luke inspired a lot of guys on the team,” Williams said. “Seeing how vulnerable he was at the start to seeing him be his true self. To see him do that, it’s super brave. In the room, we treated him like any other player: He’s part of our family, he’s one of our brothers .”

Jalen Luypen, an Oil Kings forward and Chicago Blackhawks prospect, said, “We changed our mentality as a group and protected Luke at all costs.

“We just kind of fell in love with him. He’s just a great dude. … We knew if anything was said to Luke, we’d do anything for him.”

Prokop’s impact over the past year extended beyond the ice. He’s embraced being an LGBTQ+ advocate and role model. He played a role in the development of the Oil Kings’ first Pride Day game April 9. As part of the event, he teamed with Bauer and had a custom pair of skates made featuring rainbow colors.

In June, Prokop received both the WHL and CHL Humanitarian of the Year awards for his advocacy for inclusion in hockey and across sports, and for charitable contributions in his community.

He created a program that donated $10 for each of his shots on goal to Kids Help Phonewhich he said he believes provides a vital service as a support mechanism for youth in the LGBTQ+ community.

Prokop said he hears from members of the LGBTQ+ community who tell him that they were moved by his coming out, which impacted their decision to do the same.

“I was getting messages from people in Australia, Sweden, all over across Europe,” he said. “It was awesome to see that my message and my story was getting out that far because my goal was, obviously, to help be who I was, but to have a little impact for kids out there who were like me growing up, not really knowing much about their sexuality, questioning it, stuff like that.

“It was a little bit overwhelming to start, but I kind of got used to it,” Prokop said of the attention. “It’s been really awesome just hearing other people’s stories.”

One of those stories belongs to Jason Shaya. The play-by-play broadcaster for Utica, the New Jersey Devils’ American Hockey League affiliate, publicly came out as gay in October 2021influenced by Prokop’s decision.

“Luke’s courage to come out was profoundly motivating and inspiring to me,” Shaya said. “It was also the overwhelmingly positive response he received from the entire hockey world that helped me make my decision. He sent me a message after I came out, and it was a classy move from someone who realizes the responsibility of helping people like myself feel that they have an ally in the business. Without Luke, I’m not sure I would’ve done what I did.”

Joey Gale and Steven Thompson, founders of the Seattle Pride Hockey Association, said they were impressed that Prokop took the time to meet with them during the WHL playoffs.

“Luke’s bravery to live his truth gives me hope,” Gale said. “It’s still disappointingly easy, though, to find comments on social media like, ‘Leave this out of hockey,’ or ‘Why can’t we just play sports?’ And to those I say: LGBTQ+ kids need a hero too.”

Prokop said he draws inspiration from those he inspires and uses it as fuel to help him achieve his goal.

“I want to be the first openly gay player to play in the NHL,” he said. “And I want to be that role model for kids that they can look up to, that they can go to an NHL rink, and they can watch me play and say, ‘I want to be like him when I’m older.’ “

Photos: Andy Devlin/Shandy Lo/Edmonton Oil Kings

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