Let’s just say it’s been a pretty eventful year for defenseman Luke Prokop.
After four years with the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen, Prokop played in just three games at the start of the 2021-22 season before he was traded to the powerful Edmonton Oil Kings back in his hometown of Edmonton.
Then Prokop, selected 73rd overall in the 2020 draft by Nashville, and the Oil Kings rolled to a WHL championship during which they lost just three games in the playoffs going 16-3. That celebratory moment was juxtaposed against a disappointing end to their Memorial Cup tournament ultimately won by host St. John.
Personally, Prokop rolled up 33 points in 55 regular-season games and then added 16 more in 19 postseason games, all career bests, as his game reached new heights.
And oh yeah, almost exactly a year ago, Prokop came out as the first openly gay pro hockey prospect under contract to an NHL team.
To say there’s been a lot going on for and around Prokop in the last year would qualify as a significant understatement yet it all seems to have fallen together just so for the well-spoken defenseman.
Prokop, 20, admitted the trade from Calgary was difficult because he’d been four years with the Hitmen since playing 14 games with them in 2017-18. But the Oil Kings were building something special in Edmonton and it was home so he got to spend more time with friends and family.
“I just gotten back from Nashville (and the team’s training camp). I’d played a couple of games in Calgary and I got the news that I’d been traded to Edmonton. It was a little mixed emotions. I’d spent my whole career in Calgary to that point in time, four years, a lot of good friends and memories,” Prokop said. “But I knew Edmonton had a really good team. I’d played against them for the last four years so I knew what they were capable of and a lot of players there that I had played with before, growing up playing hockey with.”
The trade also challenged Prokop to elevate his already impressive game.
“We added some pieces throughout the season and just being able to go to the rink with all those guys, a bunch of highly touted NHL prospects, being able to practice against them every single day was I think really beneficial to me and my development and then I think that people saw that throughout the season with my play progressing,” Prokop said.
It sucked, of course, to lose in the Memorial Cup after such an impressive run but Prokop, who seems not to lack for perspective on much in his life, figures there are some lessons in there somewhere.
“The year was awesome. It was a whole lot of fun. I couldn’t be more thankful to Edmonton for picking me up and taking me on that journey,” Prokop said. “It’s a little bit weird. I think we were all thinking about that when we lost the Memorial Cup. We had a helluva season. We won our league. We should be excited about that but instead we were all down and emotional after losing. There’s some stuff to learn from that but I don’t think I’ll see that for maybe a little bit. I’m still a bit sore from the loss so I probably won’t see that for the lessons that it taught for a little bit down the road.”
Certainly his return to development camp for a second time also comes with a renewed sense of confidence.
“One thing that I wanted to come into this camp with was probably enjoying it a little bit more,” Prokop said. “It is a very serious camp and you’re always being watched but you’ve got to have fun with it too at times, let loose a little bit. The first camp I was all serious. I didn’t really make a whole lot of friends or chat with any of the guys and stuff. I kind of saw them all as my competition. Whereas this time I still see them as my competition but they’re going to be my teammates too. Hanging out with them a little bit more. And then just from an on-ice perspective I think I’m just a little bit more confident on the ice with the coaching staff and the drills. I’m not as tight on my stick making plays that I usually would back home and stuff like that. It’s just easier kind on all parts of the body with this being the second time around.”
As for the decision to come out last off-season, a decision that was accompanied by lots of media attention including interviews and stories on various media platforms, Prokop wasn’t exactly sure what that would mean for his hockey playing life last season.
Not that he fretted unduly about the ramifications of a decision he felt very comfortable making.
“I definitely thought about it a little bit as I was coming out. What the year of hockey might look like for me,” Prokop said. “Obviously I didn’t expect to get traded back home. I think that was something that was actually really beneficial for me being able to be around some of my family and friends throughout the year and playing with a great group of guys. That helped . And on ice it did wonders for me as well as having a career year. Again playing on a great team but posting some really good numbers and playing the best hockey that I think I’ve ever played in my life.”
If you share something intensely personal about your life and break new ground in doing so there is naturally an element of the unknown. And yet there were benefits of that decision that were at least a little unexpected. Prokop set up a charitable event, Shots For Impact, that raised money for a confidential children’s help phone line with a $10 donation for every shot on goal. That was matched by a number of organizations including the Predators, Oil Kings and the Edmonton Oilers.
There were also the one-on-one moments during the season that reminded Prokop of the power of his decision.
“Just I think one thing that was really cool was in warmup or after games I would get players from other teams come up to me and congratulate me,” Prokop said. “Guys that I might have played one tournament with or just barely knew. They went out of their way to congratulate me or thank me. And again getting messages from a bunch of random people across the world, that’s always nice. And then being able to kind of use my platform now that I do have a little bit of a following and use it for good with the campaign that I created this season was something that I don’t think I really, I could have done before I came out. “
In short, no regrets?
“Zero. No. No regrets at all,” Prokop said.
Brock McGillis is a former hockey player who has become an influential and vocal supporter of the LGBTQ community especially as it relates to sport and inclusion. He and Prokop are close and in fact he was out to dinner with Prokop’s parents during the Memorial Cup.
“I didn’t really help him at all during the year but I don’t think he needed any. He’s pretty fantastic,” McGillis said. “Luke and I share a pretty special bond. There’s a few of us that are out in this sport and understand the sport and have been around it and understand it from an inside perspective.”
McGillis was hopeful that after coming out and dealing with the media and the immediate response to his decision Prokop could settle into a normal routine.
“That he could just go back to being Luke Prokop hockey player instead of Luke Prokop gay guy or Luke Prokop gay hockey player,” McGillis said.
Which is pretty much what happened thanks to the support of his teammates and the Oil King organization and the results both individually and organizationally reflect that.
“There’s a lot of weight that comes off your shoulders when you don’t have to hide,” McGillis said. “You’re free and you’re living as you are.”
Prokop was honored with a WHL humanitarian award and was co-winner of the Oil Kings’ humanitarian award along with forward Josh Williams.
As it turns out both Prokop and Williams, a free-agent invitee, were at the Predators development camp last week.
The two joke that Williams doesn’t get enough credit for his community work which involved reading to local kids via video chat during the last season.
But Williams, a high scoring winger at his first Nashville development camp, was appreciative of Prokop’s presence and support as Prokop had been in Nashville a year ago.
As for Prokop’s role as a teammate and friend, Williams raved.
“He’s a trailblazer. He’s a leader. He’s brave,” Williams said. “It took a lot of guts to do what he did. Me and all the rest of the guys in our room are extremely happy for him. I think it showed in his play. I think he played free this year. He played with no distractions. It was an incredible thing to do for not just himself but other people going through the same thing.”
There are lots of big-picture parts of Prokop’s decision and how it all unfolded.
If Prokop can make the decision he did to come out and then move on with his life more or less seamlessly then maybe it helps normalize this kind of decision. Maybe, just maybe, we’re a little more accepting of things than we thought.
Rob Scuderi is a two-time Stanley Cup champion who handles the development of the Predators’ defensive prospects. There is certainly an acknowledgment within the organization of the internal fortitude it took for Prokop to make the decision he did to share his sexual orientation. And the best way in which the Predators can honor that fortitude is to simply treat him like every other player. Which is what has happened. Which is, of course, all that Prokop wants.
“I think everyone’s been incredibly accepting,” Scuderi said. “I think it’s probably been like that for a while I just think no one has made that first step. And I think he deserves a lot of credit for taking that step and wanting to be comfortable in his own skin and we all I think value that courage that it took.”
“That being said Luke the hockey player is just a hockey player and if he wants to chase his dream and try to make an NHL roster at some point or work his way up or whatever it happens to be that’s what we’re here for, Scuderi added.
Prokop got the same number of videos sent during the season as any other defensive prospect just as he got the same level of praise and criticism.
“He gets treated the same,” Scuderi said. “Like sometimes you’ve got to pick it up. Sometimes you’ve got to work on some things. What he does in his personal life is his life. But when you come to work that involves everyone so he’s subject to the same praise and criticism as everyone else.”
And is there a better message for anyone who is wrestling with a similar kind of decision whether it’s in hockey or another sport or in business or academia or anywhere? That you can be honest about who you are and then you get to go on with your life and do the job that’s expected of you.
“I think Luke has become a humanizer for a lot of people,” McGillis said. “It may help inspire and motivate. I think that’s part of why we all do it. We do it for ourselves first but the hope is that it does inspire and motivate others, right?”