Calgary Hitmen defenceman and NHL prospect Luke Prokop is getting a round of applause after coming out as gay on Monday, but advocates are also calling for a change within hockey culture.
Prokop is the first active player under an NHL contract to ever come out.
The 19-year-old has spent the past four seasons with the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League after growing up in Edmonton, and has since been drafted by the Nashville Predators in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.
Since posting his announcement to Twitter, Prokop has received a public thank you from the National Hockey League, among a variety of teams.
However the hockey community close to home is also thanking him for his actions and bravery.
Jeff Chynoweth, the general manager of the Calgary Hitmen, says he is proud of the young hockey player.
“It takes a lot of courage to come out at any time, let alone as a 19-year-old young man to do what he did today,” he told The Homestretch on Monday.
“It doesn’t surprise me the strength and courage that it took for him to make that announcement today, knowing Luke Prokop like I do.”
The general manger says the Hitmen are a close-knit group and that while today’s announcement doesn’t change anything for the team, they’re excited for Luke as a person.
“I just think it’s great that he showed the leadership to do this at a young age … and I’m hoping that, you know, it’ll become old news as we move along and more people will feel free to come out and be who they are.”
Changing hockey culture
While both gay male and female athletes have wrestled with difficult decisions over the years, men’s professional sports leagues have generally been void of active, open gay players.
The National Hockey League and Major League Baseball had yet to see active players who were able to be open about their orientation.
Brock McGillis, a former professional hockey player and now advocate for the LGBTQ community says he helped coach Prokop as he prepared to come out.
“I wanted him to be prepared for the whirlwind … some of the [messages] are going to be good, some are going to be bad and some are going to be from people who are struggling,” he told CBC Calgary News at 6.
McGillis is also part of the LGBTQ community and came out five years ago after he retired in 2010 — which he says changed his life forever.
“I’m grateful to the opportunities I was given just being a gay man in hockey and the opportunities I have had to actively work to shift the culture and make it a safer space,” he said.
The advocate says he’s proud for Prokop for coming out but that there needs to be more of a push to make sports safe for those in the queer community.
“There is homophobic language in every locker room. People can say it doesn’t exist or it’s a lie but I’ve talked to enough teams in major and junior professional hockey and players, I know it’s there,” he said.
In order for there to be a change in these spaces, McGilis says there needs to be a shift in hockey culture, which starts with humanizing the issue.
“They’re not exposed to LGBTQ people enough of a regular basis even though they are probably in those rooms,” he said
“The sport is presumed to be straight and predominately middle to upper class white kids.”
He adds that by having this conversation, it will celebrate differences, rather than reinforce conformity.
“Hockey players walk the same, dress the same, and they hang out with each other seven days a week from the age of seven until they retire from playing,” he said.
“We need to do a better job of letting people being individuals.”