The numbers look like something out of a video game, with the difficulty
set to Easy.
But this is no video game. The numbers represent what Ann-Renée Desbiens
did over the last two seasons at the University of Wisconsin, cementing
herself as the best goaltender in NCAA women’s hockey.
Last season she was the best player, period. Desbiens took home the Patty
Kazmaier Award as the top player in Division I, becoming just the third
goaltender and sixth Canadian to earn the honour.
The key for the La Malbaie, Que., native? Simple … just play.
“Being able to focus on hockey, strength and conditioning, all those
things,” she says of what helped her succeed. “Knowing my coach had
confidence in me and my teammates, being able to play pretty much every
game was big for me. It definitely helped me be more consistent.”
Now Desbiens wants to take what she learned at Wisconsin and put it towards
the next step in her career; the 23-year-old is one of three goaltenders
centralized with Canada’s National Women’s Team ahead of the 2018 Olympic
And while the game will be on a much larger scale, she has come to realize
the players are the same. Literally.
“All of the girls here played college hockey at one point, so [I am] just
trying to realize that I’ve played against them before and I can still do
it here,” Desbiens says. “I learned a lot in college about myself and how
to get better at things, so I need to bring that and step it up and make
sure I’m at a solid level here.”
The centralization season gives Desbiens a chance to improve her
international résumé, particularly with Canada’s National Women’s Team. In
her last two starts, she hasn’t been there when the final buzzer sounded.
After working her way through the U18 and development levels – winning
silver at the 2011 IIHF World Women’s U18 Championship and gold at the 2015
Nations Cup – she made her senior team debut at the 2015 IIHF Women’s World
Desbiens was unbeatable early, posting shutouts in her first two starts,
including a semifinal win over Finland, and got the call for the gold medal
game against the United States.
But she allowed four goals in the first period before giving way to
Geneviève Lacasse in an eventual 7-5 loss to the Americans. It would be
more than 20 months before she wore the red and white of Team Canada again.
When she returned to the net in the first game of the December Series
against the U.S. in late 2016, she lasted just eight minutes before leaving
with an injury. Outside of training camps, she hasn’t worn the jersey
“It had been 18 months since the world championship, where the gold medal
game didn’t go well for me, so I was excited to get another opportunity to
play, and to play the U.S. especially,” Desbiens says of the game in
Plymouth, Mich. “And then eight minutes into the game the injury happened
and you realize the game is over, and you don’t know when you’re going to
be able to step back onto the ice.
“It was really hard to swallow, especially being part of the Olympic tryout
process, not being able to showcase what I could do, because my university
career went really well, but to be able to show what I could do at the
international level was a big opportunity for me. I didn’t get to do it.”
She does now.
Desbiens joins Lacasse and Shannon Szabados in the crease for
centralization, an opportunity to learn from, and challenge herself
against, a pair of Olympic gold medallists.
“I don’t have the international experience they have, and they definitely
have a lot to teach me,” she says. “I feel like every goalie is different,
and you always look to what other goalies are doing well. What my
weaknesses are are probably other goalies’ strengths, so you try to find if
they can help you out.
“They’re really awesome, but at the same time I want to be that goalie, I
want to be the one people trust. But it’s not a competition among us, it’s
more a competition with yourself and trying to be the best you can.”
Lacasse and Szabados have the added benefit of having gone through the
grind of centralization, and the long road to the Olympics. While the end
of the road is definitely worth the journey, it can be just as taxing
mentally as physically.
So while Desbiens will undoubtedly lean on her fellow goaltenders for
advice, she has her own plan in place for handling the mental side of
what’s to come over the next seven months.
“Try to keep a balanced life,” she says. “It can get overwhelming to be
here every day, be around the same people [and] travel together. For me
it’s finding the little things that keep me happy so when I come to the
rink I am super-motivated and ready to push myself and be my best.”