A night ago, Luke Prokop was glued to the TV watching the Nashville Predators, and ever since Shea Weber scored on an absolute rocket from the point, Prokop has been replaying the goal in his mind. Now, the eight-year-old is at work in his family’s garage in Edmonton, emulating Weber as best he can. He fires slap shot after slap shot at the net, aiming for that top left corner, just like Weber did, and mimicking his favourite player’s release. Once he’s taken 200, Prokop moves on to wrist shots. He fires 100 of those, and then 50 snap shots, and 50 backhands. A chart made by his dad, Al, is hanging on the wall, listing each of the four shots next to the date. Prokop records his totals for each, plus the grand tally of 400. That’s his daily goal.
The sound of rubber pounding the walls in that garage was a constant in the Prokop household, with daily shooting sessions for both Luke and his older brother, Josh. Once the drywall around the net was completely ruined, the family nailed wooden boards in place, but that solution turned out to be temporary. The kid teammates’ parents called “Big Friendly Luke” — “BFL” for short — blasted pucks through the wood, too. The Prokops eventually nailed hockey boards behind the net. Those held up nicely.
Stories just like this one, of Canadian kids firing pucks at a family’s washer-dryer set or garage door as they picture themselves playing pro, are a dime a dozen, a part of hockey’s fabric. Prokop was hardly unique as he worked toward his dreams as a youngster, back when he donned No. 6 — just like his idol, Weber — and proudly declared, “NHL player!” anytime he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. But Prokop is no longer just one among millions, and he’s not just a kid getting closer to his dream. Today, the Nashville Predators’ third-round pick is one of the most important hockey players in history.
Since Prokop came out in a social media post last summer, the 19-year-old has taken on the weight of being the first-ever openly gay player under an NHL contract. He has bravely become the role model hockey so badly needs. The sport needs a lot of work to live up to the claim it’s “for everyone,” but Prokop has taken a deliberate and much-needed step in that direction. And his hope is that one day he’ll be one of many gay men who feel comfortable living authentically while playing professional hockey.
As seriously as Prokop takes his role as a mentor, and as important as that work is, his focus at the moment is entirely with the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings, who finished second overall in the East and are looking to go on a long run as they open their first-round series against Lethbridge on April 21. The veteran blueliner, who built a reputation around his stay-at-home defending and smooth skating, heads into this post-season coming off the best offensive year of his career. The Oil Kings, a deep team loaded with NHL draft picks, have a good shot at earning a Memorial Cup berth, and the big man with a calming presence on the blue line is a crucial part of that potential.
Oil Kings left winger Jake Neighbours is a long-time friend and teammate of Prokop’s, and he has watched his buddy have a career year on the ice while balancing the obligations that come with the role Prokop has taken on off the ice. Neighbours pauses to come up with the words to properly capture his pal’s influence on the game. “Quite truthfully, I think it’s immeasurable,” Neighbours says. “He’s really changing the hockey world.”
N icole Prokop overheard more than a few comments in the stands as she watched the youngest of her three kids play hockey. Starting when he was five years old, there were the calls to check his birth certificate or make him play up a level. “Luke was always a really big boy,” she says. “He stuck out like a sore thumb.”
Prokop started skating when he was three, and was playing pre-novice when those comments began, on half-ice, with smaller nets. “His second year, he scored something like 200 goals,” Nicole says, flipping through a scrapbook she made. “Yes, 204 goals. I have it right here, with his little picture.”
Prokop doesn’t need to see the scrapbook to confirm the number. “I remember because I would count the goals, every single game,” he says, grinning. He’s sitting in his mom’s office at home, dressed comfortably in a black hooded sweatshirt. Prokop does a lot of interviews in here. He continues: “If my parents weren’t at the game, after it was over, I’d tell them how many goals I scored.” He’ll never forget playing against the Scorpions, who had a star player themselves. “I wanted to make sure I outscored their best player,” Prokop says. He scored nine times.
Despite that early offensive prowess, Prokop always hurried back to his end and planted himself near his team’s net. Defence was his priority. “I’d constantly try and push to bring that offensive skill out of him,” says his dad Al, who coached Luke starting in novice. “I think it’s part of his demeanour, that he’s got a job to protect and defend.”
Though he also played soccer, it was always hockey first for Prokop. He grins thinking back to the epic road hockey games he and Josh played against another pair of brothers in their neighbourhood. They were high stakes — the boys covered a water-cooler jug in tape, their Stanley Cup. “I was the youngest of all the kids, so I don’t remember winning it often,” Prokop says. “It was awesome when I did.”
As fierce as those battles for the water jug were the mini-stick games in basements around the neighbourhood. “A lot of sticks were thrown, guys were getting pushed around,” he says, admitting it was sometimes him inciting the battles. “You had to run and get out of the room or it might end up bad for you,” he says.
Prokop was eight when he watched Weber win Olympic gold for Canada and became a Predators fan, and 12 when his dream to be just like big No. 6 began to seem like something he might actually reach one day. He was playing at the highest levels, and was always one of the best players on the ice. “I started to realize I could do something with hockey, and gave myself every possibility to,” he says.
But after his first year of bantam, Prokop felt his progress had stalled, and he grew incredibly frustrated. “He almost wanted to quit hockey,” Nicole says. “I remember him saying to me, ‘I just want to get better.’” Adds Al: “I was afraid we were going to lose him as a player.”
Prokop says the fact he wasn’t improving was one factor, but he also recognizes now he was going through puberty, “and I had a lot of emotions.”
He was starting to feel burnt out, too, because of heavy expectations. “With my dad always being my rock who got me to where I am, I put a lot of pressure on myself, but he also put a lot of pressure on me as well. So, sometimes I would feel like in bantam I was playing for him more than I was playing for myself,” Prokop says. “Or when I would play bad and I would let him down and I knew he would be upset — I wouldn’t want to come home to that, or the long car ride home. I definitely thought about it for a while. That’s when my love of the game went away a little bit.”
Prokop decided he needed to change teams, both to see if he could restart his development and to rekindle his love for the game. In Grade 9, he moved to Kelowna, B.C., to play for the Pursuit of Excellence Hockey Academy. That’s where he first got to know Neighbours, who he’d mostly played against up to that point. “Luke was this tall, lanky kid who skated well, and he had a really long stick, which was always a problem for young kids — how do you get around a defenceman who’s that big?” Neighbours remembers.
On the ice in Kelowna, Prokop took some time to find his footing, but it wasn’t long before he played in key situations for his team. “We’d put him in front of the net sometimes on the power play, or in a shooting spot, and he didn’t question it,” says the team’s coach, Ed Zawatsky. “He really bought in to what was going on. When we had a lead he would dig in and protect the goalie, move the puck up the ice. He wasn’t selfish about anything. Sometimes bantam-age kids have that in them, but he was a team-first guy. He got to be a leader as the season progressed, like a go-to guy. Really, it’s cliché, but he was the glue guy for our team.”
Prokop soared up the Western Elite Hockey Prospect rankings, from 105th after his first year of bantam to fifth following his season in Kelowna. He credits the coaching staff for recognizing he’s a player who doesn’t need a talking-to if he messes up on the ice. “They gave me the ability to have confidence in myself. I played in all situations. I played with some amazing players,” Prokop says. “It was the first time I remember having fun in hockey in a while. That’s when the fire reignited.”
Nicole saw a different kid after that season. “His confidence and development were incredible,” she says. In the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft, the Calgary Hitmen selected Prokop seventh overall. All the hard work was paying off, and he was later selected to represent Canada at the 2018 IIHF U-18 world championships.
It was also right around then, when he was 16 and 17, that Prokop started to notice how some of the conversations his teammates had in the dressing room made him feel. “Other guys were starting to talk about girls and their bodies, and I just wasn’t really interested in that,” he says. “I really didn’t know what it meant at that point in time. I was still learning about myself and being gay, what that might mean. I pushed it aside and focused on hockey instead.”
He committed himself fully to the game, learning the ropes in the Canadian Hockey League with the Hitmen, playing on the same team as his older brother, Josh. It wasn’t until Prokop was in his third season in Calgary, when the 2021 WHL season was cancelled because of COVID, that he didn’t have the game to focus on. Prokop returned home to Edmonton and a public health lockdown. That’s when the feelings he’d been suppressing boiled to the surface.
“It gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do with hockey, and my life,” he says. “It gave me a chance to figure out who I really was. I thought a lot about what I wanted to live by.”
P rokop looked sharp. The six-foot-five defender had on a suit that wasn’t quite purple or pink but some colour in between; he says magenta doesn’t quite cover it. He’d had it made specially for the 2020 NHL Draft. Stitched into the jacket’s floral-print lining was “Montreal 2020” and his nickname, “Kopper.”
Instead of being in a packed room in Montreal with all the other draft hopefuls, Prokop was sitting in Nineteen, the restaurant his family owns in the south end of Edmonton, waiting for his name to be called. He was surrounded by friends and family who were there to help make draft night feel as special as possible, despite the pandemic that derailed the experience.
When the Nashville Predators announced his name, their third selection, 73rd overall, Prokop’s eyes immediately welled up with tears. It was, in so many ways, a dream come true: a teenager drafted by the very team he’d cheered for as a youngster. “I stood up,” he says, laughing. “That’s what you would normally do if you were drafted, right? And then I was like: ‘I don’t know what to do anymore.’” He’d envisioned himself removing that not quite purple or pink suit jacket to walk up to a stage and get his Predators jersey. Instead, he kept the jacket on, and hugged family and friends. He and Al cried together. “I was bawling my eyes out,” Prokop says, smiling.
At that point, Prokop was feeling more himself than ever before. His family and closest friends all knew he was gay. His older sister, Alanna, was the first person he told, and she gave him confidence to keep telling people when she cried with him and said the words he’d hoped to hear: “I love you no matter what.”
Al’s voice shakes as he recalls when his son sat him down to share the secret he’d been keeping for years. “To me, it was more about feeling sad for him that he had to carry it for so long, and didn’t feel like he could come to me or his mom,” Al says. “That’s the part that’s the hardest as a parent, you know?”
Among family and close friends, Al was the last person Prokop told, because it was the conversation he figured would be the hardest. “He’s the male role model in my house, the guy I looked up to the most,” Prokop explains. “What if he thought I failed him in a sense, or that he failed himself?”
What he found was a dad who was fully supportive. “I couldn’t ask for better parents, especially with everything I kind of put them through, I guess,” Prokop says, smiling.
The decision to make the news of his sexuality public came not long after the draft. By then, Prokop had found a mentor in Brock McGillis, the first male pro hockey player to publicly come out as gay. “I think he was the one that made me realize that hockey would accept me,” Prokop says. “He always kept putting into my head that hockey needs this.”
It was something Prokop knew, too: He’d wanted that role model for himself, and he also wanted to show that if you’re good enough to play, you should be given every chance to do so.
Prokop decided to go public before his final WHL season and ahead of his first NHL training camp, set for August 2021. When he told his mom the plan, “I was sort of dumbfounded,” Nicole admits. “I’m a private person, and Luke is too.” But the more she talked to her son about it, the more Nicole realized this was something he had to do. “He said it would allow him to go to his ice sessions and to the gym allowing everybody to know who he truly is,” Nicole says. “He was sharing this versus having to have the conversation over and over with people and with new teams. And of course he wanted to help anyone else going through this, so those people knew they could continue with sports or whatever else they want to pursue.”
From a hockey standpoint, the Prokop family shared a concern, one that came with wading through uncharted waters in a sport that isn’t always welcoming. “One of my fears, to be brutally honest, was: You’re a drafted player, you’re on the right track, is something like this going to impact you negatively as you try to pursue your dream?” Al says. “Are you going to get the chance to pursue your dream as fairly as somebody else?”
Adds Nicole: “I was worried for months, thinking he’s worked so hard at hockey and will he still be able to play?”
It was a risk Prokop was willing to take. “It definitely crossed my mind that this could affect my career, but I think when I got to the point of being comfortable was realizing hockey is only a game, that there’s so much more to life than hockey, that if I came out and I was able to be who I am and hockey didn’t accept me, I was okay with losing the game of hockey,” Prokop says. “I think I’d gotten to that point where I could play hockey or couldn’t play hockey and it wouldn’t matter to me just because I could be who I was.”
Gerry Johannson is Prokop’s agent, and they worked together to release the announcement. “It’s a fairly big deal, we wanted to make sure it was handled in the best way possible,” Johannson explains. He got in touch with the WHL, the NHL, Hockey Canada, the Nashville Predators, the Calgary Hitmen and the NHLPA to inform each organization the announcement was coming, and says the response he got was all positive. “One of the things I said to Luke is, ‘People want to support you, and let’s give them a chance to understand what you’re doing so they can be prepared,’” Johansson says.
July 19, 2021, was the date they picked for the announcement. It was originally set for July 13, but the Predators asked if Prokop could bump it back a few days so they could continue with a planned announcement of goaltender Pekka Rinne’s retirement. The team wanted Prokop’s news to be the news of the day.
“It was scary, but I loved every minute of it,” Prokop says of the nerve-wracking days leading up to the announcement. “It was just one step closer to me being myself.”
A cell phone sat in the middle of an otherwise empty desk, and it was open to Prokop’s Instagram page. Prokop walked into Johannson’s home office just after 7 a.m. on July 19, and all that was left to do was hit “send.”
Phoebe Balshin, Prokop’s marketing manager, was ready to publish a Twitter message from Prokop’s account on another device. “You ready?” she asked.
Prokop took a deep breath and said he was, and they both hit send.
Prokop walked to a corner of the office and sat in a chair. By the time he got there, the messages were already flooding in. Thank yous; applause for his bravery and authenticity; messages from people who’d been waiting for someone like him to show them their own hockey goals were achievable; messages from people who hoped to be greeted with support and positivity if they came out. Johansson was floored by the numbers: Prokop started with about 3,000 Instagram followers and by lunchtime the number had swelled to 20,000.
Prokop, Balshin and Johannson spent four hours that day watching supportive messages roll in. “It had a real positive effect on Luke,” Johannson says. “We’re sitting there in the office, and I could just see the weight of the world coming off his shoulders. It was really interesting. I saw firsthand how it was for him to make this public and be able to just live his life, as they say. It was really cool.”
The next day, Sir Elton John called to thank Prokop for his bravery and tell him if he needed anything, to just reach out. The support flowed in from all over the world. “I was getting so many positive messages from people that were so heartwarming to read,” Prokop says. “And also sad, because some of them said they stopped playing hockey because they didn’t have someone to look up to. They also told me they were happy for other individuals, that they have me now to look up to, in a sense.”
Prokop shakes his head as he thinks back to the hours and days following his announcement. He hoped it would have a major effect on his comfort and happiness, and it did. It was all the other people who reached out to express similar feelings that he didn’t expect.
“That’s what everyone wants, is a positive reaction and support,” he says. “I just never imagined it to be that big.”
R ob Scuderi had seen plenty of video of Prokop, but the first time the Predators’ defence development coach watched No. 6 play in person was that training camp in August 2021. Scuderi, who enjoyed a 13-year career as a defenceman in the NHL, liked much of what he saw from the 2020 third-round draft pick.
“He makes a good read with the puck; he moves it quickly, efficiently,” Scuderi says. “His size and mobility are what catch your eye, the fact that he can close gaps very well. His mobility is better than average for anyone, and the fact that he’s a big body is a major plus.”
Early on, Scuderi learned much of what he knows about Prokop off the ice through speaking to his coaches, like Prokop’s long-time bench boss in Calgary, Steve Hamilton. “One of the words he used to describe ‘Pro’ is that he’s a leader, he cares about the group, he’s respected in the room,” Scuderi says. “Those are things you like to hear.”
Following that training camp in Nashville, Scuderi could see a couple of scenarios for Prokop for next season. “You never know, but maybe he has a breakthrough year and I’m seeing him as a guy that maybe cracks Nashville’s top six,” he says. “But as a guy that’s never played a professional hockey game, there’s a lot of times that even if you come in with a fantastic training camp, more than likely you’d be in the American League trying to smooth out some of your skills as you make the transition.”
That would put Prokop in Milwaukee next year with the team’s AHL affiliate, a step Prokop feels he’s ready for. “Getting bigger, stronger, faster, doing whatever it takes to get to that next level,” he says.
Prokop is more confident than ever that he’ll one day play in the NHL. It’s in part because he’s 19 and he’s had the best season of his career as a WHL veteran on a stacked team, and it’s also because it’s his first full season of hockey while being completely himself off the ice.
“If I’d watched myself in seasons prior, right now I’m probably the most confident I’ve been,” he says. “I’m in a really good position.”
T he Calgary Hitmen played their first home game of the 2021-22 season against Lethbridge, and among the 3,761 fans in the Saddledome that afternoon were Al and Nicole Prokop.
The first period was barely underway when the Hitmen went on the power play. Prokop hopped over the boards, and when his team gained possession in the offensive zone, he set up on the left faceoff dot and fired a one-timer to make it 1-0 Hitmen.
He laughs now, thinking back on the moment, because he fanned on the shot, “barely got anything on it,” he admits. And yet Prokop was overcome with chills when that puck went in, the first for Calgary in an eventual 4-1 win. “I realized that was my first goal I’d scored as an openly gay man,” he says. “I think it was just a sign of, I don’t score often, but to score the second game of the year made me sense there would be a lot of good things to come for this season. That game, I really felt on top of the world, like I could make any play I wanted to. I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes. I was confident in myself.”
Al has seen that mentality continue for his youngest son through this season. “It’s a confidence that honestly, I hadn’t seen since maybe his 14-, 15-year-old season,” Al says. “He’s more relaxed, more at ease with himself, comfortable with who he is.”
The offensive side of Prokop’s game has only grown since he was traded to the Oil Kings in late October, joining a contender looking to add depth to their back end. In 58 regular-season games in Edmonton, Prokop put up career-highs in goals (11) and assists (24). And he and the rest of his teammates are especially fired up to get the playoffs underway. “We really haven’t had anything to play for in three years,” Prokop says, because of the pandemic. “I know I’m really excited to get started, and the rest of the guys are as well.”
Oil Kings head coach Brad Lauer expects Prokop’s calming presence to be big for his team in what they hope will be a long run. “He’s not only one of the top defencemen in our league, but you can really see the veteran leadership that he brings,” Lauer says. “If the room needs something, he’ll say something, but for the most part he’s a guy that watches and listens and leads by example. The way he plays and carries himself, he brings that calmness to the group. When you’re going down the stretch drive here, one-goal games and tie games or a game behind, he’s one of those guys that I think settles the core down.”
Neighbours seconds that, because nothing gets to big No. 6. “For a defenceman to play against teams’ top players all night, he usually has difficult matchups, he’s playing a lot of minutes, but you never see him waver mentally,” Neighbours says. “He’s never involved in any scrums, any chirping, he’s never engaged in that side of the game and I think that’s because he’s so focused on what he needs to do personally for the team. He does a really good job of focusing on what he does well, and that’s something he brings every night. The consistency and focus he has is just incredible.”
It’s especially incredible, Neighbours adds, given the added attention Prokop gets off the ice, and his dedication to being a role model for others. “He doesn’t see it as pressure, it’s more like an opportunity, a way he can share his story,” Neighbours says. “He’s done a great job of that so far in terms of not thinking about it too much, acting like he’s just another junior hockey player and chasing a championship.”
Prokop credits his Oil Kings teammates for making it easy to feel like “just another junior hockey player.” When he was dating someone earlier this season, his buddies would pepper him with questions about the guy — What does he look like? What does he do for work? Is he funny? — just as they would ask another teammate about a girlfriend. “That may seem little, and it was never something I thought about, but it means so much,” Prokop says. “They really want to get invested in my life.”
“There’s obviously different topics and you have to be comfortable talking about them with him, it’s your teammate and one of my best friends,” Neighbours says. “And for us, we’re all really happy for him and we’re here for him.”
Earlier this month, the Oil Kings had their first-ever Pride Night, an event that wasn’t on the calendar until after Prokop joined the team. The front office brought the idea to Prokop well ahead of time, and he was all in. “I was thinking, what could we do to make sure this night has a little bit more rainbow, a little bit more pride, and show my colours a little bit?” Prokop says. He came up with the idea of rainbow skates, which Bauer provided. The company also surprised him with a Pride stick, and Prokop was decked out for the game that began with him taking part in a ceremonial puck drop. “A handful of my teammates said to me afterwards that that was the most important game they’ve ever been a part of,” Prokop says. “That was just incredible to hear.”
It was a night when all eyes were on Prokop, but it’s not much different on nights that aren’t dedicated to LGBTQ+ pride. Neighbours watches his pal’s phone blow up regularly, and the pace of messages hasn’t slowed much in the months since Prokop’s announcement. “I see the people who reach out to him on his social media, the people who are calling him, the people he interacts with regularly,” Neighbours says. “It’s honestly insane, the impact he’s having on the world.”
Al agrees, and he’s floored by his son’s willingness to be a mentor to so many. “That’s where you look at it and it’s like, ‘Holy shit, at 19, who does that?’” Al says. “For a kid to have the courage to do what he did, and you’ve gotta think there are other players out there, so just the impact he’s silently had on these individuals, right? It’s incredible. It really caught us off-guard with how significant it was in the hockey community for him to do what he did.”
“I still sometimes can’t believe that he’s my son, that he was brave enough to do this, to share his story with the world,” Nicole adds. “There are really no words.” The kid she sees at home is different from the kid she saw a year ago. “He’s happier,” she says. “He’s freer.”
Prokop answers all the messages he receives, providing either advice, or a virtual shoulder to cry on, or just making sure he’s there to listen. “People are opening up to me, which is heartbreaking, in a sense, but I’m so glad that through my coming out experience, I can help others now,” he says. “I don’t think I really knew how important I was until I started getting all the messages, when I realized that if there’s a young kid out here who wants to make the NHL and is gay, I’m kind of the only person that they can look up to, I guess, in a sense, which is sad.”
Witnessing that impact has only further fuelled his motivation on the ice. “I want to be the first player to openly be gay and play an NHL game and I want that to happen as soon as possible. I think before coming out, I was thinking, there’s life afterwards without hockey,” he says. “But now when I look into my future I don’t see a life without hockey. This whole process has made me so much more confident in my abilities, and it gives me that extra bit of motivation.”
This is not to say the added role of mentorship isn’t sometimes overwhelming for Prokop, a teenager who often forgets that he is still very much a kid who lives at home with his parents. “I chose this kind of life of being a role model, but sometimes I don’t feel like I’m 19 when I’m telling a 25-year-old that it’s okay to be who you are,” Prokop admits. “That can be a lot.”
Especially when you’re shouldering that weight alone. Al’s hope is that someday soon, Prokop can put all his focus on hockey. Al excuses himself from the phone when the subject comes up, because he’s getting choked up. After a 30-second pause, his voice is shaking when he says: “It’s been nice to see how great everybody’s been about it. But too, at some point, we kind of need to stop talking about it, and just let him be a player.”
Prokop figures he won’t ever be just a hockey player, and that’s something he can live with. “I think this will always be a part of me,” he says. “When I get asked to do interviews or podcasts, I get excited because sometimes I think it’s just going to be about my hockey, and not just because I’m this trailblazer. It’s awesome that I am, but sometimes I just wish I was getting recognized more for my hockey than for being openly gay in hockey.”
He gets the same questions a lot, about being gay, about the support he gets, about how welcoming his teammates have been. He’s learned to answer those like any other question, like he’s explaining how his team’s going to get the power play going. The question he’s gotten the most lately goes something like this: If you could do it all over again and go back in time to just before you came out publicly, would you do anything differently? He doesn’t let people get to the end of that one.
“I cut them off, and I say, ‘No,’” Prokop says. “There is no way on earth that I would ever regret making this decision.”
Thank goodness for that, sports fans. And thank goodness for Big Friendly and Important Luke Prokop, who had the courage to be the player that hockey has needed for a long, long time.