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NHL prospect Luke Prokop comes out as gay, in a first for the league

(CNN)National Hockey League prospect Luke Prokop came out as gay via a heartfelt statement to fans Monday, saying he hoped it would improve gay visibility within the hockey community.

Prokop and the Nashville Predators, the NHL team that drafted him in 2020, confirmed the news in statements on their respective Instagram accounts.

Prokop, a 19-year-old defenseman who currently plays for the Calgary Hitmen in the Western Hockey League, said while the last year and a half of living through the pandemic was "crazy," it gave him the chance to "find [his] true self."

"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," his statement read in part.

"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 is truly for everyone," he wrote.

Leaders in both the National and Western Hockey Leagues responded in support of Prokop.

Nashville Predators President and CEO Sean Henry said the organization was "proud of Luke for the courage he is displaying in coming out" and that the team would "support him unequivocally in the days, weeks and years to come as he continues to develop as a prospect."

"A long-stated goal in our organization is equality for all, including the LGBTQ community, and it is important that Luke feels comfortable and part of an inclusive environment as he moves forward with his career," Henry said in a statement shared on the team's Instagram account.

Western Hockey League Commissioner Ron Robinson said the "entire WHL community" felt pride in Prokop for his admission and hailed him as a role model for other young hockey players and people in the LGBTQ+ community."

The Predators signed Prokop to a three-year, entry-level contract after selecting him in the third round of the 2020 NHL Draft. Prokop has not played in a NHL game to date.

CNN has reached out to representatives for Prokop for comment and is waiting to hear back.

There are few openly gay active players in the country's major sports leagues

Prokop hasn't played an NHL game yet, but if he does, he'll join quite a small club: There have only been two openly gay active players in the four largest US sports leagues -- Carl Nassib of the NFL's Las Vegas Raiders, who came out last month, and Jason Collins, an NBA veteran who came out in 2013 and retired the following season.

Experts previously told CNN that part of the reason why men in professional sports may feel hesitant to come out is due to the narrow ideal of masculinity that pervades sports culture. Homophobic language is often used among coaches and players on youth sports teams. This can evolve into lasting homophobic attitudes or cause gay players to hide their sexuality from their teammates, said Erik Denison, a behavioral scientist and lead researcher on the Sport Inclusion Project at Monash University in Australia, in a June interview with CNN.

But closeted athletes and LGBTQ young people could see a positive example in people like Prokop and Nassib, whose teams supported them after they came out and continue to thrive in their sport.

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