This is the sixth in a series of articles honoring the 20 players who have been selected to the WCHA's 20th Anniversary Team. This week's honoree is Ann-Renée Desbiens, who played at the University of Wisconsin from 2013-14 to 2016-17.
By Bill Brophy
MADISON, Wis. – In February, she proudly wore the maple leaf on her uniform in the first game of the Winter Olympics. Ann-Renée Desbiens was in goal in Pyeongchang, South Korea for Team Canada, earning a shutout and making 18 saves against the Olympic Athletes of Russia.
Nine months later, you want to rub your eyes when you look out at the A Level game at 10:40 p.m. on Sunday at Madison Ice Arena. It looks like Desbiens, the 2017 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award winner, but there is no maple leaf on her uniform. But a world class goalie in this group?
Sure enough, it's the former Wisconsin all-American tending goal for the "Best Buds."
"Don't you just love the team name?" said Desbiens, the only Olympic silver medalist in the MIA Sunday night men's league. "It's my boyfriend's team. They needed a goalie. I am having a good time. It's just fun to play."
In addition to having the best glove hand at MIA on Sundays, Desbiens is a graduate student in business at the University of Wisconsin the rest of the week. A few months after winning a silver medal at the Olympics, Ann-Renée decided to leave Hockey Canada temporarily and return to campus. The 24-year-old plans to graduate in May with a master's degree. She is going at her classwork with the same intensity that she played goal.
"Because she is so bright, Ann-Renée could always focus on what she wanted to achieve," said Mark Greenhalgh. "She does it when she plays. She is managing her time now as well."
Greenhalgh has coached three Olympians during his time as the volunteer goalie coach for Mark Johnson at Wisconsin – Jessie Vetter, Alex Rigsby and Desbiens. He saw Ann-Renée come in as a freshman, a French-Canadian who struggled to speak English, and emerge as a polished goalie who has no trouble communicating in two languages.
"Her mental focus is what separates her," said Greenhalgh. "Couple that with athletic ability and her willingness to compete and what she did here was amazing."
Now that she has been gone from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) for a couple years, a look back at Desbiens' accomplishments are astonishing. The La Malbaie, Québec native broke most goaltending records at Wisconsin and many in the NCAA, too.
She set the NCAA record for most career shutouts (in either men's or women's hockey) with 55 and also broke Vetter's shutout mark (again, either men's or women's), setting the new NCAA record with 543:53 consecutive scoreless minutes.
"I don't care who your opponent is or what level it is at in hockey, to go that many games without giving up a goal is just incredible," said Greenhalgh.
It was the shutout mark which brought Desbiens a lot of media attention. "That streak was pretty amazing and the team's (shutout) streak was even longer than mine," said Desbiens. "A lot of it was because we had such a good team and the puck was in our offensive zone so much. The longer it went, I got asked the same question (about the streak) over and over and people weren't paying attention to our team's success. I will never be happy to give up a goal, but once the streak ended, I was pleased the emphasis could go back on our team."
That 2015-16 Badgers team beat Minnesota in the WCHA Final Faceoff, the highlight of Desbiens' college career she says, only to see the Gophers gain revenge in the NCAA semifinal. During that season, Desbiens was WCHA Player of the Year, named a finalist for the Kazmaier Award, named an all-American and sent the NCAA record book back to the printer for revision. She set the NCAA single-season shutout record with 21 that year and set new national single-season standards for save percentage (.960) and goals-against average (0.76).
In her senior year, Desbiens was first in the nation in wins (29), shutouts (17), goals-against average (0.71) and save percentage (.963), and she helped lead UW to the NCAA championship final for the first time in her career, but the Badgers fell to Clarkson. She won the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award that season and left Wisconsin with 99 career wins, second-most in school history.
"She never got rattled," said Greenhalgh. "She is matter of fact about things and for all her accomplishments, she doesn't have a fat head. If anything bugged her, she hid it well. People can say when Clarkson beat us that Ann was nervous. I don't buy that. She never let the magnitude of the moment get to her."
On occasion, Greenhalgh plays in a 3-on-3 league with former National Hockey Leaguers and minor league players who reside in Madison. A couple weeks back, the group needed a goalie. Greenhalgh brought Desbiens, who was ready for a step up from the Sunday night beer league.
"It was fun. You play in a small area and those guys could snipe," said Desbiens, who grew up playing against the boys in Québec.
Greenhalgh said "those guys couldn't believe how good she was."
But aside from an hour or so at the rink, Desbiens is concentrating on the books right now. She looks back fondly on her Olympic experience. "The opening ceremonies was, by far, my favorite moment. It is a dream until you walk out into the stadium. And then it becomes real, that you are representing your country."
Like many UW students, Desbiens is a fan of the Badgers, the No. 1 team in the country this season. She stopped by LaBahn Arena a few weeks ago, to watch her old team play. It brought back memories.
"The best thing about playing was to make connections with my teammates and for all the support there," said Desbiens. "Playing in LaBahn is so cool. To go back there again was great. It made me want to play in front of the fans again. They were so great to me and my teammates."
Did re-visiting LaBahn re-ignite her competitive spirit more than playing with the Best Buds? She says she will mull her hockey future after graduation. "I know I have options once I finish school," she says. "It is a good problem to have. We will see what happens."