Danish hockey player Jon-Lee Olsen joined a very exclusive club last week by coming out as gay during a live TV broadcast.
During an interview with the Danish news program Go’ aften, the 27-year-old athlete opened up about his sexual orientation for the first time and claimed he’s ready for any of the backlash that comes with being LGBTQ+ in a sport that has historically welcomed very few gay and bisexual men. Olsen is the first gay player in the Metal Ligaen, Denmark’s national hockey league.
In fact, there are very few out male hockey players at the pro level in the entire world, a tally that includes Sweden’s Lars Peter Karlsson.
“There’s a risk that some people might shout and heckle me while I’m playing matches,” he said last Thursday. “It’s something I have to be ready for and be mature about. But I feel that I’m ready to show that you can be gay and play ice hockey.”
Olsen, who serves as goaltender for Rungsted Seier Capital, he finally came out to teammates in August after years of pretending to date girls and hiding who he really was. He sent a text telling them that he “had something [he wanted] to get off [his] chest,” adding that he hoped the information wouldn’t “change anything.”
But while he had been terrified of being rejected or ostracized if he ever told anyone else in the league about his sexuality, Olsen said the reaction was the opposite: His teammates embraced him.
“They wrote that they had great respect for the fact that I dared to say it, and that I was still just me,” he told Go’ aften, adding that it’s actually made the group even closer: “I think there is more openness among us now. Now we can talk freely about the same things from everyday life — without a filter.”
His teammates agreed. While former National Football League player Michael Sam was dogged by concerns that being gay would be a “distraction” after he was drafted in 2014, they say the opposite has been true in Olsen’s case.
“He's playing better now,” said forward Nikolaj Rosenthal. “It is as if a stone has fallen from his heart.”
But even as athletes like Olsen blaze trails for inclusion, hockey still has a long way to go. The National Hockey League has never had an out player. While Bruins forward Brad Marchand told ESPN in 2017 that he felt gay athletes would be accepted in the league, a recent study from the University of Alberta found that closeted NHL players remain hesistant to come out because they feel it will negatively impact their careers.
“Though the subjects were split on whether they thought the NHL was homophobic, all of them… agreed that the potential to lose their career outweighed the benefit of revealing something they can live with people not knowing,” researchers claimed.