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Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Andy Devlin

Luke’s Truth

It’s been more than 24 hours since Luke Prokop announced he is gay. His historic revelation rocked the hockey world and turned the news cycle upside down with the NHL expansion draft looming. Luke’s truth was met with universal support and much talk about the courage it took for him to share it.

By now, everybody paying the slightest bit of attention knows what Prokop, a 19-year-old from Edmonton who has played four seasons with the Calgary Hitmen and was drafted 73rd overall by the Nashville Predators had to say and his reasons for saying it, as reported here and here. 

In part, Prokop said: “Hi everyone. While the past year and a half has been crazy, it has also given me the chance to find my true self. I am no longer scared to hide who I am. Today I am proud to publicly tell everyone that I am gay.

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“It has been quite the journey to get to this point in my life, but I could not be happier with my decision to come out. From a young age I have dreamed of being an NHL player, and I believe that living my authentic life will allow me to bring my whole self to the rink and improve my chances of fulfilling my dreams.”

I was prepping for my weekly podcast with Bryn Griffiths when the Prokop story broke. Suffice to say, the historic nature of the announcement wasn’t lost on Griffiths and me, both 60-something, or guest Ray Ferraro, no spring chicken at 56. When you’ve been around the game and thousands of players through four or five decades and not witnessed even one player willing to speak his truth, you know what a thunderbolt it is.

All that said, for all the support from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on down, it’s what happens next that matters. For the brave step Prokop took to really matter, the hockey world and the hockey culture needs to make real changes and walk the walk after the talk has died down and the headlines are done.

MEANINGFUL CHANGE

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“The first thing I’ll say is, man, it was sure nice to wake up to an email of hope and good news and possibilities and openness,” said Ferraro, who played 1,258 games in the NHL 1984-85 to 2001-02 and is now an ESPN commentator. “There’s so many times you wake up and the first story you see is something that weighs you down, something that, I don’t know, just takes a little bit of half-a-breath out of you . . . 

“In some ways, guys, it staggers me that it has to be such a big deal, yet I know what a big deal it is. I cannot believe the courage it took for him. Like, how would I know what he felt about that final step of telling his sister and then his mom and his brother and his dad and then his teammates and his agent?

“What he’s encountered of course, reading the story, is support and guidance. Then, to Brian Burke and Brian through his son Brendan, who passed away over a decade ago. The support that he got there. I don’t think it’s possible to for any of us to understand the change that Luke Prokop is bringing to the sport of hockey and to amateur sport and professional sport.”

The change. Yes, what will actually change with a game that has been far too slow to be inclusive, whether we’re talking sexuality or race? Aside from declaring support or wrapping sticks in Pride tape now and then, can we make real changes so that declarations like Prokop’s are no longer headline-makers?

I played minor hockey in an era when the default way of trash-talking, of cheap-shotting an opponent about his toughness or willingness to mix it up, was to question his sexuality. Decades later as a reporter covering the game through the WHL and the NHL, I heard the same slang and the same words on the ice – and in the dressing room in banter between teammates. You know what they are. Some of that wasn’t so long ago.

That’s an uncomfortable truth that’s been part of the game for far too long. Saying, “I don’t care” or “It doesn’t matter to me” about the issue isn’t the way forward. It does matter. If it didn’t, how is it Prokop, with his entire career ahead of him, is the first player to come out after all these decades? How many players over all these years haven’t felt comfortable being who they are?

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THE BOTTOM LINE

Photo by Candice Ward/Calgary Hitmen

“He’s sitting in the locker room wondering, if I come out and say I’m gay, how will that change things? It’ll change some of the language that’s used in there,” Ferraro said. “It’ll change the way people react to someone they find out is gay. Now, to those of us who are older, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have a family member, a good friend, an acquaintance that is gay and how it’s changed all of our lives.

“I don’t react and say things that I said when I was 18 years old. I don’t. It just doesn’t happen. But Luke Prokop is doing this at the front of his career. There’s going to be a wake of change behind him. How can you not be happy for this young man? Now, he can go where he wants, do what he wants and say what he wants and not worry that somebody’s going to whisper, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the gay hockey player. Who cares?

“Good for him. It’s brave and bold and I think the hockey community will support him far greater than he could even imagine. As Brian Burke said, ‘There’ll always be some idiots online that are going to say stupid stuff.’ Block them, mute them, ignore them, whatever. He’s going to find the support behind him that he probably only hoped of. Now, he’s going to see it.”

Previously by Robin Brownlee