Blittner’s Blue Line: “Times, They Are A Changin’” By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/

“Today I am proud to publicly tell everyone that I am gay.” — Luke Prokop, defenseman, Calgary Hitmen (WHL).

Monday July 19th was a historic day in professional hockey history, but it shouldn’t have had to be.

In a social media post on his personal Twitter page, 19-year-old defenseman, Luke Prokop, a prospect in the Nashville Predators’ pipeline, came out as the first openly gay, ACTIVE male hockey player. He hasn’t technically made it to the NHL just yet, but he was drafted by an NHL team, which is a big deal.

There are a just handful of players who have come out as gay after their playing careers were over; the first being Brock McGillis, who came out 10-years after his playing days had ended. But that moment doesn’t stand up to Prokop’s.

It isn’t a competition, of course, but it is uncharted waters for Prokop, his family, his teammates and the hockey world. First and foremost, it is Prokop who must now navigate the waters of what has never been done before.

The Predators drafted him in the third-round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft; that’s no small feat. There are legitimate hopes he will make it to the NHL and potentially one day soon. For him to come out before his first Training Camp, that took guts. But it shouldn’t have needed to.

By now I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of stories about the crude nature of the hockey world. The history of locker room culture across all levels of hockey (from the Mini Mite (U.S.) or Atom (Canada) levels all the way to the NHL) is littered with horrible experiences for LGBTQ+ players. 

Is this different from any other sport or workplace? Unfortunately, probably not. But that doesn’t mean it should just be excused with a wave of the hand.

We’ve seen a change over the past several years in the way the NHL and all levels of hockey operate. There are initiatives like “Hockey is for Everyone” and the “You Can Play Campaign” that are supposed to help players feel comfortable, regardless of their sexual orientation. Have these and other programs worked? Perhaps a little, but there’s still mountains of work to be done to change the negative culture that’s persisted in hockey for decades.

Luke Prokop is the first, he won’t be the last. Hopefully this young man can blaze a trail that will help others like him. And one day, hopefully soon, the hockey world won’t be surprised by these types of announcements; which hopefully won’t be needed at all. Yes, Prokop should be celebrated for his decision. Here’s to hoping it has a positive effect on the negative parts of hockey’s culture. 

Times are changing indeed, so let’s continue to see the changes through for a better tomorrow.

Meanwhile, speaking of changes — on a different level of course — news broke — ESPN was first with the report — early Monday afternoon that the NHL will be releasing it’s 2021-22 schedule on Thursday and it will include a break for the Winter Olympics in February 2022. 

A deal between the NHL and the IOC is not yet done. But the players and league are hopeful one will be in place in the coming weeks. Should a deal not come to fruition, the League would likely have an alternate schedule put in place for February 5-22 (those are the rumored start and end dates of the Olympic Break). 

The Players Association was unhappy with not being allowed to participate in the 2018 Olympics, so should the players get to go in roughly seven-months from now, it will be their first Olympic participation since 2014. 

Commissioner Gary Bettman and his staff have never been seen as huge proponents of taking a multi-week break during the middle of the NHL season. However, it is a good sign they are willing to do more to make the players happy. Perhaps the decades old strife between the Players Association and League Management might finally get put to bed once and for all?

One thing that should make both The League and the PA happy is the windfall of cash the Seattle Kraken paid ($650M) to enter the NHL as its 32nd franchise. Perhaps that amount (up from the $500M Vegas paid) will continue to skyrocket if/when the NHL decides to invite another team to its fraternity.

Team financial valuations are going up and with new TV deals in place with ESPN and TNT, the NHL should be awash with cash once the COVID-19 pandemic officially ends. Of course, that raises the question of whether or not the NHL should welcome more teams into the fold? 

What’s the right number? Is it 32? 33? 34? MLB and the NBA have 30 teams each. The NFL is at 32. Would the NHL really try to be the first of the four major leagues to consider going beyond 32 teams? The topic has certainly come up in MLB and in the NFL, but so far neither has decided to cross that unwritten threshold. 

Quebec once had a team (and wants one again) while Houston has long been rumored to be interested. Would the NHL really go to 34? What would those new teams have to pay to get in? Could the price soar as high as $800M? Perhaps even $1B? Those aren’t small numbers and they must have current NHL Owners salivating over the possibilities. 

But getting back to Seattle, the newly minted franchise will announce its Expansion Draft picks on Wednesday night at 8pm(EST) in what is sure to be a highly publicized event. While we don’t yet know who the players will be — although we do have some educated guesses — there’s no question the stars are coming out to support the Kraken. According to multiple reports, Marshawn Lynch, Shawn Kemp, Sue Bird, Jordan Morris, Bobby Wagner, Kyle Lewis, Gary Payton and Lenny Wilkens are expected to be amongst the horde of celebrities who will help announce Seattle’s picks to the world. 

Now, as for those educated guesses for who some of the players will be…

There’s a lot of smoke surrounding Carey Price potentially being Seattle’s version of Marc-Andre Fleury, when the latter was chosen by Vegas in 2017. The two negatives to such a selection are the rumors of Price needing knee/hip surgery, as well as Price’s bloated contract that carries a $10.5M cap hit for the next five-years. 

That’s a lot of money to spend on a goalie who has dealt with some ups and downs in recent years. However, there’s no denying that when healthy Price is still an elite netminder. Of course, NHL Insider Elliotte Friedman reported Monday afternoon that the Kraken were closing in on signing Panthers’ pending UFA goalie, Chris Driedger to a three-year deal worth $3.5M per season. So that could take Price out of the equation, but who knows? A tandem of Price and Driedger would be one of the best in the NHL, which could be a very enticing proposition for GM Ron Francis. 

Other big names like Gabriel Landeskog and Vladimir Tarasenko are also available and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Seattle scoop up at least one of them. Plus, Mark Giordano is out there for the taking as well. With Seattle ownership reportedly willing to spend to The Cap, Francis will have a lot of leeway to select some big name players in order to try and replicate Vegas’ first-year success. 

And speaking of success, how soon do we think it’ll be before the Kraken are hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup? 

Here’s a quick review of which teams won The Cup quickest and who waited the longest. Please remember, of the 31 currently active franchises to have played a game as of the 2020-21 season, there are 11 teams who have not yet won the Stanley Cup. So, of the remaining 20 teams, here’s the rundown:

Quickest to win The Cup: Toronto Maple Leafs (1-season). The Maple Leafs won The Cup in their first-year in the NHL; way back in the 1917-18 season.

Longest to win The Cup: St. Louis Blues (51-seasons). The Blues won their first Cup in the 2018-19 season.

Average length of time to win first Cup: 17.4-seasons.

Yes, the game has changed over the years, between the amount of teams in the NHL, to the various playoff formats and the style of the game, as well as the rules. So 17.4-years is not a rule, but it is interesting nonetheless. 

Now, as for our local Rangers and Islanders, both teams have news to report.

NHL Insider, Frank Seravalli, reported Monday afternoon that the Blueshirts were close to signing recently acquired Barclay Goodrow to a six-year deal with an AAV of $3.6M. Of course, that contract can’t be officially announced until after the trade/transaction freeze lifts on Thursday. If those end up being the final numbers, then kudos to Chris Drury on getting Goodrow to agree to an AAV of $3.6M; which he surely could have exceeded on the opening market.

The issue is with the six-year term. That was always going to be the going rate for the two-time Cup champion, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. Players like Goodrow, whose primary asset is grit, usually break down well before their contracts expire. So that bears watching.

In regards to the Islanders, the team is very clearly targeting a big-ticket player once free agency opens on July 28th. GM Lou Lamoriello has managed to clear roughly $18M in cap space over the last few days (and yes, that number includes putting Johnny Boychuk’s $6M on LTIR when next season begins). A lot of that money will go to the team’s RFAs (Anthony Beauvillier, Adam Pelech and Ilya Sorokin) as well as to at least one of its UFAs (Casey Cizikas). 

But with Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle both being left unprotected, should Seattle take one of those players, the Islanders’ cap space would increase by another $5M-$5.5M. That could make them players for Landeskog, should Colorado’s Captain get to the open market. The Isles could also use a portion of their new found cap room to sign recently bought out defenseman Ryan Suter to a deal to replace the recently traded Nick Leddy.

Sources close to Suter indicate there are multiple teams interested in the 36-year-old defenseman and that could drive the bidding up in a hurry. There are other veteran defenseman on the market who could intrigue the Islanders, but there does seem to be mutual interest in a potential union. 

Meanwhile, one piece of news that should make Islanders fans happy is the status of Captain Anders Lee’s rehab from ACL surgery. Videos surfaced during the playoffs of Lee skating on his own and then with the Isles extras. So that led to speculation he could be on his way back during the post-season.

Well, “Blittner’s Blue Line” has been able to confirm via a text exchange with Lee’s agent, Neil Sheehy, that Lee was indeed close to playing had the Isles advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. Sheehy went on to comment that Lee “will be 100% at Training Camp and is doing great!”

That’s terrific news for the Boys from Long Island and their fans, who sorely missed Lee’s presence during the team’s playoff run.

That’s all for this week’s “Blittner’s Blue Line” and please remember there are several key NHL dates coming up in the following days.

Wednesday July 21st: NHL Expansion Draft Selection Show at 8pm(EST).

Friday July 23rd and Saturday July 24th: The NHL’s annual Entry Draft. 

Wednesday July 28th: Free Agency begins.

Categories: Hockey

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