There was always hope that if there was one, there would be more. We’re not there yet, but after Carl Nassib came out, and is the first openly gay player in the NFL, the NHL has one now in Luke Prokop. Or it will, whenever Prokop gets called up. I suppose I should write “if” he gets called up, because there’s a chance he won’t. Certainly, the scrutiny will be on the Preds if they don’t. He’ll be at training camp in the fall, that much we can say.
Hockey and the NHL was always going to be the roughest terrain for an openly gay player, as it’s the most sheltered. The NBA and NFL are filled with players, for the most part, that grew up in the city. They’ve been to high school and college, and especially the latter likely have noticeable and proud gay communities. Not that it scrapes clean all bigotry and hatred from basketball and football locker rooms, but it’s generally something they’ve at least had some interaction with. Open interaction, because we know all these guys have had gay teammates somewhere along the line without knowing it. Baseball players are somewhere in the middle, as a good portion come from the same hinterlands as hockey players do, just more southern (geographically, not morally). But some don’t, a lot go to college, more people play it, etc.
Hockey is different. A huge swath of NHL players don’t even finish high school. They grow up in a hockey dressing room, which leads to all sorts of problems (not that those problems don’t exist in other sports, but you get it). Some go to college too, but how many actually attend a class is anyone’s guess. The small-town population of the NHL is probably the highest percentage of any league.
It’s also the one with the most closed-in fanbase, partially due to being the smallest. Part of most hockey fans’ identity is not being in the mainstream, and not having to deal with anything that doesn’t have to do with hockey. They get very upset about anything penetrating the bubble they’ve created for themselves.
Teams have had their “Pride Nights” and not much else, and their relationship with “You Can Play” is mostly about You Can Play celebrating the fact that it has a relationship with the NHL without actually doing anything. They’ll almost certainly try and get on the back of this to claim actual action, whatever it is they actually do. We aren’t that far removed from Andrew Shaw calling a ref a “f——-” on TV, and only getting a one-game suspension for it. Or then becoming the Canadiens LGBTQ ambassador months later, though to be fair to Shaw it was something he sought out to make up for his epithet. It was only two years ago that the NHL passed on the chance to suspend Morgan Rielly for the same thing, somehow buying his excuse that “Rag it” is something people say all the time.
You can be sure every Predator will be getting a seminar on what to say to the press before they even arrive in training camp should Prokop arrive, and they’ll probably need it. There are some serious hilljacks in that dressing room. And it’s not the Nashville fans anyone should have to worry about, as we can be pretty sure they’ll support Prokop to the hilt. But what happens on the road? Will opposing arenas punish any fan finding the same vocabulary mentioned above? What about opponents? Will his Preds teammates rush to his defense? Will we see them walk as we have occasionally in soccer? That’s much more unlikely.
Hockey dressing rooms are famous, or infamous, for being intolerant of anything that takes away from “TEAM.” Distractions are a swear word within them. Guys get cold looks for wearing colored shoes. How will the Preds really react, when the cameras aren’t on, about having to answer these questions? Prokop himself seems more than ready to take all that on himself, and you can’t help but feel his relief and excitement about getting to be who he truly is now just drip through any article about him yesterday — but what will his teammates think?
These are questions we can circle back to in the fall. Along with Nassib, the only emotion is happiness that these guys feel strong and comfortable enough to be who they are, which when phrased like that makes the whole issue seem incredibly stupid. But this is an incredibly stupid place. There was one. Now there’s two. Soon that will become four, which will become eight, and then we’ll lose count. It won’t be a smooth ride all the time, and it won’t go as fast as we’d like. But any sign or feeling of progress to what’s right still feels good.
I don’t want to spend everyone one of these bemoaning the Olympics, because that point has been thoroughly made and would make it seem like I actually care about the Games, which I don’t.
Still, I caught NBC’s ad for the Opening Ceremony for the first time last night. I don’t know how long it’s been running, so I could be slow on the uptake. The opening lines got me. “There’s one event that shows us how big the world is, but what connects us all,” or some such shlock. It’ll make for quite the illustration of where the world is when the Opening Ceremonies take place in an empty stadium with some competitors still in quarantine or protocols or not able to make it at all. Much truer than any copywriter could make it seem.
I have no doubt that Friday’s ceremony will be full of broadcasters trying to stress how this represents how the world has healed and recovered from COVID, even as their voices echo off empty bleachers. The machine rolls on.