NHL prospect Luke Prokop may not be in the pros yet, but in a way, that makes his coming out even more impactful. The 19-year-old defenseman publicly came out as gay before his first training camp with the Nashville Predators, unafraid of the impact it could have on his playing career.

That’s why Prokop is our Outsports Male Hero of the Year for 2021.

As the first active player under NHL contract to come out, Prokop is a standard-bearer and role model for gay hockey players everywhere. We’ve written extensively about hockey’s atavistic culture, fueled in part by the lack of diversity at elite youth levels.

But in recent years, we’ve seen young gay hockey players come out in droves, changing the sport in the process.

Every LGBTQ person knows the toll that being closeted can take on your mental health. When you’re hiding part of your identity, it can feel like a dark cloud is constantly hovering overhead. That’s why it was especially poignant to hear Prokop talk about how coming out improved his performance on the ice. For the first time, he could put on his skates without also carrying a secret.

“I think it’s been translating a lot into my summer and my summer training. I’ve noticed myself being a lot more confident on the ice,” Prokop told The Athletic in July. “Being able to truly be who I am. This is the best I’ve ever felt in the summer and I think a large part of that is due to this process of me coming out.’’

Prokop started coming out to family and friends in 2020 before telling Predators management this past June. Every member of the team’s front office said they backed Prokop unequivocally. Before the season, he also told three of his teammates on the Calgary Hitmen, who play in the Western Hockey League.

In a new series, Breaking Ice, Prokop says he started questioning his sexuality when he was 14. He was fearful his family wouldn't accept him, never mind his peers and coaches in the hockey world.

But those worries didn't materialize. Prokop experienced widespread support when he made his big announcement in July, even receiving a call from Sir Elton John. One of the more telling reactions came from Predators defenseman Mark Borowiecki, who said he wasn’t sure there was space for an out LGBTQ athlete in the NHL while he was growing up.

Borowiecki was glad to be proven wrong.

“To see this sport evolve where a young man feels comfortable enough to do this, I think it’s great,” he said.

Prokop told the Advocate he had not been called any slurs since he discussed his sexuality publicly.

Prokop isn’t afraid that his sexuality will prohibit him from playing in the NHL.

The warm reception Prokop received wasn’t surprising to us, since LGBTQ athletes report deep and widespread acceptance from their teammates. The more high-profile examples we have of athletes being embraced after they come out will only continue to shatter the outdated perception that sports aren’t inclusive.

Five months after publicly coming out, Prokop, who stands at 6-foot-4 and weighs 216 pounds, is still chasing his NHL dream — and his sexuality isn’t an issue. He was traded to another team in the WHL, his hometown Edmonton Oil Kings, prior to the start of the season — another powerful statement, seeing a team trade for a publicly out gay player.

The third-round pick has played well in Edmonton, amassing 14 points as a defenseman in 23 games. If Prokop makes it to the pros, it won’t be in spite of his sexuality. As he says, coming out has made it easier for him to be the player he wants to be.

That’s a message worth hearing, again and again.

Other Honorees

Tom Daley: The iconic out British diver didn’t just win his first gold medal at the Tokyo Games. On the world stage, he talked about the pride he feels as a gay man.

“I feel incredibly proud to say I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion,” Daley said in August. “I feel very empowered by that. When I was younger I thought I was never going to be anything or achieve anything because of who I was. To be an Olympic champion now shows that you can achieve anything.”

Since coming out in 2013, Daley has been one of the most visible out male athletes in the world. And every year, more athletes join him in revealing their truth. This year, at least 186 out LGBTQ athletes competed in the Olympic Games.

Daley’s proud proclamation should only lead to that list growing even larger in the years to come.

Josh Cavallo: The first active professional men’s soccer player in Australia’s top league broke ground for LGBTQ athletes in his home country when he publicly came out in October. His announcement propelled at least 38 pro soccer players and clubs to congratulate him around the world, reinforcing the notion that out gay athletes shouldn’t wallow in fear.

Notably, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was one of those backers, saying he hopes we’ll arrive at a time when it’s not necessary for LGBTQ athletes to publicly declare their sexuality.

Each time an out athlete like Cavallo makes history, we inch closer towards that goal.