Zero. That was the number that stuck out to me when reading an interview in the Athletic with Luke Prokop, who on Friday became the first openly gay player to play in an American Hockey League game, a league one rung below the NHL.
While there have been some derogatory comments coming from the stands on a few occasions, Prokop has been encouraged there have been none from opposing players.
“Zero,” he said.
Most of the feedback he’s received, even on social media, has been positive.
Now 21, Prokop came out as gay when he was 19, rare in hockey and even rarer for someone so young and not yet established in the pros. By all accounts, his coming out has gone as smoothly as possible. “It’s been massive,” he told Joe Smith of the Athletic, detailing how he no longer has to hide.
When his story first came out, Elton John reached out and even offered Prokop his email address. While that was a high, even more meaningful were the responses he got from NHL players, including Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
One text message was impossible to ignore. He didn’t recognize the number but certainly knew the name.
“Hey, it’s Auston Matthews. I wanted to congratulate you. I look forward to sharing the ice with you someday.”
Prokop was blown away. The Toronto Maple Leafs superstar wasn’t the most famous person to reach out — that honor goes to Elton John — but the fact that so many NHLers, including one of the league’s best and most powerful players, were offering support meant a lot.
Prokop’s experience is one of the most affirming I’ve seen for a male athlete at an elite level. While admitting the decision was “nerve-wracking,” he doesn’t regret it. “I’d like to think I’m a realistic person,” Prokop said. “I know hockey is not going to be forever. As much as [when I came out] I would have loved to keep playing, I was OK with not playing any more if it didn’t work out — just being able to live my life the way I wanted, to be myself.”
Being himself means being able to share his life with another man without hiding. If he had a Tinder profile, his interests would read: “He loves to read, from biographies to sci-fi. He watches basketball more than hockey and has more than 25 jerseys. He cooks. He got into puzzles during the pandemic and is bullish about doing them on his own.”
Prokop also feels comfortable getting out there on the dating scene and not having to hide it from teammates.
“Obviously, the lifestyle of a hockey player is tough for some people,” he said. “I’m trying to find the right person to connect with. I’m a softie, a romantic guy. I love love. I’m always on the lookout for that right person to spend the rest of my life with.”
The whole article is worth your time and I love Prokop’s perspective and insight as a young gay athlete.