Luke Prokop today shattered a wall many of us have been hoping to see in shards for years.
The NHL has never had a player under contract come out publicly. Heck, the league has never even had a player come out after retirement. No coach. No GM. Nobody.
Yet when I ask people what men’s American pro league they think would be the most gay-friendly, the NHL is often the name that comes up. After many years of outwardly embracing the LGBTQ community, perception about the NHL has shifted into one of acceptance.
It’s been an interesting dynamic for a lot of people to wrestle with for many years. Why has the league that has seemingly fully embraced the LGBTQ community the longest had the fewest people come out?
When Patrick Burke launched the You Can Play project in 2012, it attracted massive attention and partnership with the NHL and many of its teams. Every single team has had Pride Nights or inclusion nights, many of them a highlight of the league’s season. The league and many of its teams and players have participated in various Pride marches. Discrimination against LGBTQ people is banned by the league.
All the way back in 2010, 42% of NHL players polled said they believed they had a gay teammate. In 2015, 34-of-35 NHL players polled said they would accept a gay teammate; Try to get 34 of 35 people anywhere to agree on anything.
Yet while people see rainbows and Pride Nights enveloping hockey, many still believe American professional sports aren’t “ready” for gay athletes to come out. So many people buy into the false narrative that men’s sports are bastions of homophobia, and men’s locker rooms are designed to reject gay athletes.
At Outsports, we’ve been talking about high levels of acceptance in men’s sports here in North America, because that’s what we’ve seen in high schools and colleges. When Outsports releases its study of the experiences of LGBTQ athletes coming out in high school and college later this autumn, some people will be shocked by the reports of widespread acceptance.
Yet no one should be surprised as we watch Prokop embark on his professional career in hockey, now as a publicly out gay man, and find widespread support.
While they’re not in the league anymore, I loved where Steve Buckley turned for insight when he heard the news: NHL legends Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque.
“I’m all for people feeling good in their skin and being comfortable with who they are,” Bourque said.
And that’s how professional athletes are. Even if they may not understand every detail of everyone’s life on their team, they also understand they don’t have to.
That’s what locker-room leaders have talked about across sports for years. While locker rooms are painted by some as havens for toxicity, they are designed to bring people together, to create bonds amongst teammates all working together toward a common goal.
Hopefully the coverage of support for Prokop will get the attention it deserves. We’re already seeing a statement from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and other players, including teammates. And there will be more. Much more.
The NHL itself has committed $100k to LGBTQ causes, and it has chronicled the many players, teams and others across the league who have offered their support.
Every step Prokop takes toward taking the ice with the Predators, or some other NHL team, will now be a giant leap for inspiring the rest of mankind to be their true selves. We’ll be here for all of it.