Red Deer Rebels defenceman Joel Sexsmith says he’s “unbelievably proud” of his childhood friend who became the first openly gay player in Western Hockey League history.
Luke Prokop, who has played four seasons with the Calgary Hitmen and was selected by the Nashville Predators in the third round of the 2020 National Hockey League Entry Draft, came out as gay on Monday. He is also the first player under contract to an NHL team to come out as gay.
— luke prokop (@lukeprokop_6) July 19, 2021
“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 tell everyone that I am gay,” Prokop said on Twitter.
“I wouldn’t be able to do this without my amazing family, friends and agents – who have known this about me and met me with love and support every step of the way. I hope that in sharing who I am, I can help other people see that gay people are welcome in the hockey community, as we work to make sure that hockey truly is for everyone.”
Sexsmith said he met Prokop when they were nine years old while trying out for a hockey team in Edmonton.
“We got to know each other during the tryout process and began to befriend each other, and eventually became teammates and defence partners on the team,” Sexsmith told the Advocate Monday morning.
About a decade after first meeting, they are now best friends, said Sexsmith, who has played for the Rebels for two seasons.
“Luke’s kind of the guy I go to if I need some advice and I think he could say the same about me,” he said.
Prokop came out to Sexmith as well as other friends and family members in 2020.
“At first it was surprising. But I was very supportive and I still continue to be very supportive of him. It’s amazing how many strides he’s made as a person in the last year,” he said.
“The one big thing I stressed on and continue to stress on to this very day … is that nothing would change. We’d stay great friends regardless. I let him know he was my best friend and him being gay had absolutely nothing to do with our friendship and had zero impact on it. It’s who he is and it doesn’t matter – it shouldn’t matter.”
Sexsmith said Prokop is “creating a path” for young people who didn’t have the interest in playing hockey because of the stigma surrounding homosexuality.
“He’s opening up doors for the next generation. That’s what matters most. There are kids out there that need to know it’s OK to be who they are and they can play a sport they love. That’s exactly what Luke’s doing,” said Sexsmith.
“There are going to be people out there who aren’t open to this and Luke knows that. There’s a stigma wrapped around it – a stigma that needs to end. Luke is himself and that’s all that should really matter.
“He doesn’t change as a hockey player now. I hope the guys in the western league are accepting and I know a vast majority of them will be. That’s important and it’s a step forward for that game. It’s a step forward for the LGBTQ community.”
Prokop said he “could not be happier” with his 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 dream,” Prokop said.
“I may be new to the community, but I am eager to learn about the strong and resilient people who came before me and paved the way so I could be more comfortable today. This is just the beginning of my journey and I am excited to see where it takes me, both in hockey and life.”
WHL commissioner Ron Robison pledged the support of the league in a statement Monday.
“The entire WHL community is proud of Luke for sharing his true self today,” said Robison.
“We commend and recognize Luke for courageously standing as a role model for other young hockey players and people in the LGBTQ+ community, especially those within and close to the WHL. We wish Luke success this coming season and in his continued pursuit of playing in the NHL.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement the league is proud of Prokop for his announcement.
“We pledge to do everything possible to ensure that Luke’s experience is a welcoming and affirmative one and continue to work to ensure that any current or former NHL player contemplating following in his trailblazing footsteps knows our league is ready to provide full support,” said Bettman.