Ann-Renée Desbiens was starting to regret telling her parents not to come watch her debut at the IIHF Women’s World Championship in 2015. You couldn’t blame the goaltender for sparing Claire and Raynald the more than 5,000-kilometre trip from their home in Quebec, to Malmo, Sweden, though, since Desbiens didn’t figure she’d see much ice time. The 20-year-old rookie expected to be Canada’s No. 3 in net.
And so it was a surprise when she found herself two games and just as many shutouts in, after a perfect 19-save performance against Finland in the semi-final. Then she got the call for the gold medal game against the rival and defending champion Americans, which again came as a shock to Desbiens, and to many who’d expected the more experienced Geneviève Lacasse to play in the big moments. But Desbiens was the hot hand, and had shown incredible poise. “Nothing fazed her,” teammate Natalie Spooner remembers. “It was crazy.”
The gold medal game was a different animal, though. Team USA struck within the first three minutes, the Americans added another two on the power-play, and it was 4–2 for the defending champions after 20 minutes. Three of the four U.S. goals were virtually unstoppable, but after facing 20 shots in the first, Desbiens was pulled from her net. She watched the rest of an eventual 7–5 loss from the bench. And she beat herself up about her performance. “Finally you have the opportunity [to play on the biggest stage],” she says. “And it doesn’t go like you want it to — not even close.”
Desbiens looked forward to bringing her best to future big games for Canada. But at a national team training camp a few months later, the promising young goalie failed to hit a fitness standard. And because she failed a beep test, Desbiens was cut from Team Canada. She was told to try out again next season.
Desbiens was crushed by the news, and that gold-medal shelling and the failed beep test were just a couple of the roadblocks she’d face on the international stage. Though she would return to the University of Wisconsin afterward and have one of the greatest seasons of any goaltender in NCAA history, she would also find herself walking away from hockey just a year after graduation — she thought, for good.
Making the journey that brought the 27-year-old back to the game meant overcoming the obstacles that got in the way of her reaching her potential. Desbiens is well-versed in meeting challenges — some enraging, others self-inflicted and one quite funny — and she believes they’ve made her a stronger person and player. Now back with Team Canada and playing at the World Championships for the first time since that debut seven years ago, teammates say Desbiens has the tools to prove she’s the world’s best. And that’s great news for a Canadian team looking to win its first world championship gold in nearly a decade, on a stage Team USA has owned since 2012.
When she was growing up, young Ann-Renée was often told that even though she was the best goalie trying out for a given boys’ team, she still couldn’t play on that boys’ team. “The reason is, I was a hassle for them, blah, blah, blah,” Desbiens says of a common explanation she’d hear from coaches during her minor hockey career. They figured they’d have to make special arrangements for a girl when it came to dressing rooms and hotel stays. Another popular refrain: “’Oh, you might be better than the boys right now but eventually they’ll be better than you, so we’re going to be betting on that.’”
“I worked around it,” she says.
Desbiens had a fair bit to work around. Since there wasn’t a girls’ league and only a few competitive programs in their tiny hometown of La Malbaie, Que., Desbiens had to find boys’ teams that would accept her, which she did. And by the time she was Atom-aged, she and two teammates, Simon and Carl, were carpooling for the three-hour round trip to Quebec City so they could play BB, higher than the level offered at home.
The youngest of five kids, Desbiens was a goalie from the start since her siblings, Martin, Dominic, Vincent and Sabrina, needed someone to shoot on in the basement. And just as she accommodated their wishes, she did her best to ensure she wasn’t a “hassle” for the teams on which she played. She got dressed in the same room as her teammates and worked with arena staff to find empty rooms to shower in. “It was never a problem for my coaches, but I guess some people are a little stuck in their own ways,” she says. “My parents were always like, ‘Do the best you can wherever you’re allowed to play.’”
Says Claire, her mom, in an interview translated from French: “We had accepted she could not play on some teams. I think it motivated her even more.”
At 15, Desbiens moved to Quebec City to play midget AA. That’s when she got an invite to try out for the girls’ U17 provincial team. “I remember getting that letter in the mail and asking my parents, ‘What is that about?’” she says. “’Is that even real?’”
When Desbiens showed up for the tryout, she was one of 100 invited players. “I didn’t even know that many girls played hockey,” she says. “I was a lost lamb in there.”
Desbiens may have felt lost, but she still impressed. A year later as a 16-year-old, she made her debut for Team Canada at the 2011 IIHF World Women’s U18 Championship and started in the gold medal game, a 5–2 loss to the Americans. Soon after, she became the first-ever woman drafted into the Quebec Junior AAA league. “The coach there didn’t want a girl either,” she says. Desbiens was cut before she played a game for Loups de la Tuque. She continued to play on AA boys’ teams that accepted her, but competing for Canada had ignited a new goal.
“I never knew what to expect, how good I was compared to other girls in the country,” she says. “Once you get those first experiences you’re like, ‘Oh my god, it’s actually possible. I can be there and do that.’
“That’s what I wanted to do.”
Mark Johnson has been coaching the University of Wisconsin Badgers for nearly two decades, and the former NHLer and star of the American efforts in the 1980 Olympic Miracle on Ice says in all his recruitment visits over the years, he has never seen anything like the first time he watched Ann-Renée Desbiens play hockey in person — nothing even remotely close.
It was 2013, and Johnson made the trip from Wisconsin to Quebec City to see the 19-year-old on the advice of Badgers assistant coach Jackie Crum, who was working with Desbiens on Canada’s U22 team. Desbiens was playing for the Junior AA Gouverneurs de Ste-Foy, with and against 20- and 21-year-old men. “I’ll never forget it,” Johnson says, laughing. “It was chaotic.
“First of all, she let in a shot really early, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh boy, this could be a long night.’ But she held her own and that’s the only shot that beat her.”
Johnson doesn’t normally see much physical play when scouting women, he says. “But here, you’ve got a group of guys together and they’ve got a female goaltender and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Okay, here we go!’”
Johnson doesn’t remember how many fights took place, only that there were brawls aplenty. The conflict wasn’t limited to the ice, either. At one point, the coach of the opposing team was kicked out of the game and refused to leave at first. The referees told him play wouldn’t resume until he left the rink. “And I’m like, ‘Whoa, this is awesome,’” Johnson says. “The coach is mad and he wouldn’t let it go, and boom, boom, boom, the next thing you know he’s walking across the ice, he’s yellin’, his hands are up in the air. The game ended not long after that.”
The game may have been over, but the fighting continued in the locker room. “Next thing you know, here come the Mounties,” Johnson says. “And it was like, ‘Whoa!’”
“I remember being in net, like, ‘Seriously, boys? You’re gonna do this today?” Desbiens says, laughing. Her teammates all knew the “Miracle on Ice coach” was in the stands, scouting her. “All these fights? Today?”
Amidst the chaos, Johnson saw a lot of things he liked about Desbiens’ game. “Her presence and her size,” he says, highlighting some of the qualities he liked about the five-foot-nine Desbiens. “She was playing against men that could shoot the puck really hard and she was able to have that composure — and just her ease of movement. You could see she had the capability to be a real good goaltender.”
Johnson, who doesn’t speak French, then had a meal with Claire and Raynald Desbiens, who don’t speak English, and Desbiens herself, who says she “barely” spoke English then. She did her best to translate and facilitate conversation about the Wisconsin experience as Johnson conveyed it, but there were long stretches of silence. “One of the most awkward dinners I’ve ever had,” Desbiens says, laughing.
Still, she was sold on visiting the school, because it was a free trip to an exotic locale. “I didn’t know where Wisconsin was on a map, had never heard of this place,” she says. It didn’t take long for her to fall in love with the city of Madison during that visit, because it reminded her a bit of home. She committed for the 2013–14 season.
Then-Badgers forward Madison Packer will never forget her first meeting with Desbiens. She’d been asked by associate head coach Dan Koch to help the new goalie get settled, but Koch neglected to mention some key details. “I saw Dan later and I was like, ‘Dude, you didn’t tell me she doesn’t speak English and doesn’t have anything, and isn’t, like, prepared for college,’” Packer says, laughing as she remembers how shocked she was to see Desbiens had shown up for the year with just a wallet and a backpack.
Packer’s mom was in town and she got Desbiens set up with a cell phone and an American bank account, and took her to Target for dorm supplies. Desbiens spent that first night on Packer’s couch since her dorm didn’t open until a day later. Few words were exchanged between the teammates. “To her credit, I would’ve absolutely failed,” Packer says. “Most people would’ve. I would’ve been home in a heartbeat, but she just adapted and figured it out.”
Desbiens is very bright — she wrote the SAT in English and fared well, without knowing the meaning of words like “odd” and “even” (helpful in the math section). By her second semester in Wisconsin, she could have one-on-one English conversations comfortably. By her second year, she could participate in dressing room banter. By her third year, she was comfortable in any conversation — and she was in the midst of one of the greatest college careers by any goaltender in NCAA history.
“My junior year went extremely well, individually,” Desbiens says. She set NCAA single-season records for shutouts (21) and save percentage (.960), “and people were like, ‘Oh that can never happen again, that was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.’” She did even better in some aspects of her game during her senior year, setting a new NCAA single-season mark with a best-ever 0.71 goals against average and posting an NCAA record shutout streak of nearly 10 games, at 543 minutes and 53 seconds. Near the end of her senior season, in 2017, Desbiens won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the best player in women’s college hockey. No goalie in NCAA history has recorded more shutouts than Desbiens’ 55, which she managed in 122 games — that’s a jaw-dropping 45 per cent shutout rate.
“It was an incredible career,” Johnson says. “But I think the thing that really impressed me with her is her willingness to continue to develop. She set the goal that, ‘I want to be an Olympic player one day.’ She’s the type of kid that doesn’t just say it, she follows through. And when she put her mind to something, especially playing, she became very difficult to beat. You look at some of the numbers and the shutouts, it’s going to be a challenge to even try to think about beating any of those records.”
Johnson adds with a laugh: “I’m very happy I went on that recruiting trip.”
It’s Day 4 of Team Canada’s five-day quarantine in Calgary ahead of the 2021 IIHF Women’s World Championship. Desbiens is alone in her hotel room, and she’s crying. She’s taking deep breaths and her voice is shaking. “I’m sorry,” she says, but there really isn’t anything to apologize for.
Desbiens is reflecting on why she quit hockey after playing for Canada at the 2018 Olympics. There, she earned a shutout against (the Olympic Athletes of) Russia in Canada’s opener, and then spent the rest of the tournament in the press box as the team’s No. 3. She won a silver medal, and Shannon Szabados got the start in net for Canada in the final.
When she got home from Pyeongchang, having graduated college and with no pro women’s league that could pay her a living wage, Desbiens quickly became fed up. She didn’t see a viable future in hockey. She decided that shutout at the Olympics was her last game. “We saw big things during these recent summer Olympics about mental health [from athletes like U.S. gymnast Simone Biles], and I don’t know, I just wasn’t enjoying hockey,” she says, her voice shaking. “It’s also hard because as women athletes, there’s not a lot of opportunities for us out there. I’ve always been the type of person with a plan. But you get on the big stage, the Olympics, and then people just forget that you exist the other four years.”
The decision to stop playing was emotional for her family. “She was tired,” Claire says, citing the mental effort required to play at the international level, especially at such a competitive position. “We always said: ‘Ann-Renée, it’s your choice.… You love this game, we love watching you, but it is your decision.’”
Desbiens focused on her career. She interned that summer at Deloitte, then decided to finish the masters in accounting she had started at Wisconsin. She joined the Badgers’ coaching staff as a volunteer goalie coach, and worked with Kristen Campbell, who is now part of the trio backstopping Canada at these world championships, alongside Desbiens and Emerance Maschmeyer. That 2019 season in Wisconsin, Campbell led the Badgers to a national championship, something Desbiens hadn’t won herself as a player. “I remember right after we won, she was running onto the ice and she was in full-on tears,” Campbell says. “I’m so excited to get those moments with her now as teammates.”
Desbiens says coaching with the Badgers was one of the best things she’s done for her hockey career, and it led to coaching opportunities with Hockey Canada. Back in the fold, she says she saw the positive changes in the organization that came along with the addition of former player Gina Kingsbury as director of the women’s team. “That’s when I was like, ‘I should give this another shot as a player,’” Desbiens says.
After an 18-month break, she returned for a training camp ahead of the 2019–20 Canada-USA Rivalry Series. “I think it was my best camp ever,” she says. “I couldn’t think about the past. It was a fresh start.”
Desbiens is not back only because she missed hockey. She’s back because she didn’t feel she’d been at her absolute best for Canada, or for herself. “I needed to see how much better I could get,” she says. “Obviously, I had a great college career, but what else could I do? What else can I improve on? What can I do differently to ensure that I can be the best goalie in the world? When I came back, I decided I was going to do everything I can to make this team, go to the Olympics again and do everything in my power to be the best I can be.” She pauses, then laughs and adds: “On and off the ice.”
It’s that second part Desbiens hadn’t committed to. When she was cut from the Team Canada in 2015 for failing the beep test, she knew she’d get sent home and have to wait until the next year to try out again. “I was so stubborn that I didn’t put the time and effort in to pass the test,” she says, of her failure in 2015. Players and staff acknowledge that sending home a talented goalie because she didn’t pass a running test is a tough look, but it was a Hockey Canada standard players were well aware of. Desbiens came back in 2016 and passed, but injured her knee in the first period of her first game back.
Injuries, the global pandemic and “poor decisions on my part,” she says, are the reasons for the hiccups in her national team career. “I’ve learned to control what I can control — practice habits, those kinds of things,” she says. “If you’ve done everything you can to be the best you can be, that’s all you can ask for. And if there’s another goalie in Canada that’s better, then I’m really happy for Canada, because that’s what really matters.”
Veteran national team forward Natalie Spooner believes Desbiens (who teammates call “Deb”) has what it takes to be the goalie of Canada’s future. “She can hold teams in games and come up with really big saves. The longer she plays, she could be up there with [two-time Olympic gold medallist] Szabados, who’s won those big games for Canada. She’s got everything,” Spooner says. “In practice it’s like, ‘Man, I’m not sure I scored all practice on you.’ She’s patient. She’s not going to make the first move, she’s going to out-wait the shooter. It makes her really hard to score against. I think it gives our team a lot of confidence, playing in front of her.”
At NHL All-Star Weekend in 2020, Desbiens led Canada to a 2–1 win over the Americans in a three-on-three game, with a big save on Amanda Kessel right before the buzzer. “I think her confidence has kept on building from there,” Spooner says. “She’s really now just feelin’ it, and I think we’ll see that in this tournament.”
The task ahead: Winning Canada’s first world championship gold in nine years, after a worst-ever bronze medal finish in 2019. The final is August 31, and of course, the team to beat is American — something that hasn’t changed since Desbiens last played here. “It doesn’t matter how many times they’ve won in the past, that’s the beauty about sports,” she says. “You can always write the future.”
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