Women's hockey: Wisconsin goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens’ journey to becoming one of the nation's elite
MADISON, Wis. — You have just arrived in a foreign country and have little grasp of its language.
Your world is wedged tightly into two suitcases, a light load given that you plan to stay for at least the next nine months.
You have a credit card and a modest amount of cash, but no cell phone and no easy way of locating the person waiting to pick you up for the biggest adventure of your life.
What do you do?
Ann-Renée Desbiens stood in the middle of the Dane County Regional Airport and thought for a moment.
It was August 2013 and the 19-year-old goaltender from La Malbaie, Quebec, had just arrived in Madison to begin orientation for her freshman season with the Wisconsin women's hockey team.
Desbiens had no way of knowing she would re-write the NCAA record book while putting herself in position to become the fifth Patty Kazmaier Award winner in program history.
Desbiens had no way of knowing she would set preposterous standards for shutouts — 21 in a season, 51 for her career — on the way to being named national player of the year and first-team All-American.
Desbiens had no way of knowing she would become an award-winning student — a degree in accounting awaits her in May — while endearing herself to professors, academic counselors and fans alike.
Desbiens had no way of knowing that her body of work with the Badgers would become so brilliant — 93-13-9 record, 0.91 goals against average, .954 save ratio — that she might well become the third goaltender in the 20-year history of the Kazmaier Award to win it.
"A special player," Badgers coach Mark Johnson said, "not only to our team and our league, but women's hockey.
"You look at the numbers and what she's meant to us and what she's meant to the position, it's pretty impressive. In fact, it's very impressive."
Especially when you consider how this journey began for Desbiens.
She had been to Madison before — on her official recruiting visit — and had fallen in love with the lakeside campus that reminded her of home, not to mention its high-level academics for business and all the amenities afforded the four-time NCAA championship women's hockey program.
But when Desbiens arrived that summer day to embark on her college career, a series of unusual challenges arose. The way she handled them — overcame them — goes to the heart of her intensely confident, competitive and independent nature.
"She likes to figure things out on her own," said Mary Weaver-Klees, an academic advisor for UW Athletics who works with the women's hockey program.
Desbiens knew she was supposed to meet up with Wisconsin associate head coach Dan Koch and catch a ride to campus, but didn't have an easy means to contact him.
So the teenager who grew up in a modest French-speaking household — her parents and four older siblings don't speak English — approached a gate agent and asked to use the landline phone.
In short order, Desbiens and Koch were headed downtown.
"A lot of short sentences," Koch recalled of the trip.
"Challenging," Desbiens remembered.
Since Desbiens wasn't able to move into her dorm room until the next day, Koch had made arrangements for Desbiens to bunk with Madison Packer, a senior winger from Birmingham, Michigan, who lived alone in a two-bedroom apartment.
Oops. Packer said she didn't know about the language barrier with Desbiens, nor was Packer prepared to host a guest. Her parents were in town helping her move and they were staying in the second bedroom.
Packer gave Desbiens her room for the night and Packer slept on the sofa.
"She had zero idea of what to do or how to do it when she got to campus," Packer recalled. "I actually felt bad."
The next day, while Madison and her father Greg continued to get settled at the apartment, Laura Packer took Desbiens to purchase a cell phone and open a credit union account.
"My mom didn't want her to get taken advantage of, so she went with her," Madison said.
Not that Desbiens came across as frightened or intimidated, though.
"Uncomfortable," Packer said.
"She was dependent in a way that I think she felt badly because she knew she needed help, but didn't want to feel like she was imposing," Packer said.
The episode made Packer recall her freshman year when her father came and helped set up bunkbeds in the dorm room she shared with UW teammate Kelly Jaminski.
By contrast, Desbiens was completely on her own — her parents 1,300 driving miles away — dealing with a whole new world that included language and cultural barriers.
"I would have been drowning if I were her," Packer said of Desbiens. "She made it work. She never complained.
"If the roles had been reversed, the first thing I would have done is call my parents and say, 'This isn't going to work.' Because you could tell it was uncomfortable and it wasn't what she expected.
"But she never really let that show. She knew what she needed to do. She knew it would be difficult. But she put forth the persona that she was going to be able to do it and she knew she could do it."
Desbiens made her way to the dorms the next day where she bunked with a member of the UW women's swimming and diving team.
Looking back, Desbiens recounted how her older sister, Sabrina, expressed doubt about her college plans.
"Way too scary," Sabrina told her.
"We'll see how it goes," Ann-Renée said.
As part of Desbiens' indoctrination to the campus, she embarked on a far-flung walking tour of the area by herself. She used the Google Maps app on her new phone to identify and find landmarks like class sites, the Union Terrace and State Street.
Desbiens left home when she 15 to play major midget hockey in Quebec — living with a billet family while attending high school — so being on her own was nothing new. She's also attended numerous Team Canada training camps with an eye toward representing her country in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Still, walking the UW campus solo is a pretty bold project for someone new to the area, its language and its rhythms.
"I wanted to find places I felt comfortable," she said.
Desbiens said she took the walk "because I didn't have to speak English with anybody; it was easier."
Desbiens said she came here able to understand people who conversed with her in a one-on-one setting, but groups and multiple voices was "brutal."
Desbiens embraced learning a second language like she did all her coursework: With aggressive intent. In all, she took four English classes to get up to speed.
Don't be surprised.
This is someone who has amassed 147 credits over four years of undergraduate work — 120 are needed for most degrees at UW — because she likes to learn and stay busy.
This is someone on pace to graduate in May with a 3.4 grade-point average and whose campus apartment features a whiteboard with her classes, assignments and appointments color-coded.
Tracey Maloney, a learning specialist for UW Athletics who assists the women's hockey team, said Desbiens "works to master things" and has an "incredibly driven mindset."
Turns out the biggest challenge for Desbiens during her freshman year was on the ice.
The Badgers had an elite senior goaltender in Alex Rigsby, who set a school record with 100 wins and played in two NCAA championship games, winning it all in 2011. She's a strong contender to start for Team USA in the 2018 Olympics.
"I never had the opportunity to fight for that spot," Desbiens said.
Packer, an assistant captain on that 2013-14 squad, said everyone could see that Desbiens had the goods, but there was a definite pecking order at the position.
"She was maybe a little bit frustrated because she knew she was good," Packer said of Desbiens. "She was frustrated she wasn't playing more. But on the flip side, Alex Rigsby is a pretty great goaltender as well."
Desbiens got some extended action when Rigsby suffered a first-half knee injury and wound up 11-1 with a 1.05 goals against average, .957 save ratio and three shutouts.
"You had two No. 1 goalies sitting on the same bench," Packer said. "Rigs had been there. She proved herself and the coaches had confidence in her. Ann-Renée was younger.
"I think it was tough for the coaches looking at the situation, but in the locker room we didn't see awkwardness or anything."
Koch, the UW recruiting coordinator, said Desbiens made her presence felt every day.
"She took every practice like it was a game," he said. "She made Rigsby better just by her competitiveness."
You see that first-hand at the end of every Friday practice when a rebound game is played. A shooter at the top of the slot tries to beat the goaltender. If a save is made, players are lined up on both sides of the slot trying to convert the rebound. One pass is allowed after every shot. Points are accumulated in a game to 15 that doesn't favor the goaltender.
"We've never beaten her," Koch said of Desbiens. "That's quite impressive."
It's hard to put 51 career shutouts in perspective. Try the fact it represents 45 percent of her 113 starts. Or that she's blanked every team in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association at least twice.
How about the fact you have to go back 13 years to count 50 shutout victories for the UW men's team?
How about the fact that Desbiens was a backup as a freshman and missed five games this season recovering from injuries?
Perhaps the truest measure of Desbiens' dominance is this: She has allowed one goal or fewer in 85 of her 113 career starts (75 percent). Her record in those outings is 76-1-8.
Desbiens has the requisite skill, athleticism and precision to be a world-class goaltender, but there's something else.
"She has this confidence that when she puts in her mind that she doesn't want to get beat, it's pretty clear that she makes it tough for that to happen," Koch said.
Packer saw it four years ago when she watched Desbiens deny shooter after shooter in practice.
"I knew she was going to be a good player. I think everyone did," Packer said.
"She just had a confidence," Packer said. "You're not that confident about yourself if you don't have something to back it up."
Desbiens had never been injured prior to this season. The concussion came from a knee to the head in a WCHA game in October and sidelined her for four games. Her knee injury came while playing for Team Canada in December.
Desbiens initially thought the knee injury had ended her college career, but the sprain healed quicker than anyone thought.
"I took it a little bit for granted that I would never get injured, that I was a superhero and that injuries would never happen to me," she said.
How did Raynald and Claire Desbiens feel when their baby — in addition to Sabrina, Ann-Renée has three older brothers in Martin, Dominic and Vincent — left for college?
"We were a little worried," said Raynald, a retired paper factory worker. "It was pretty far."
During a recent afternoon, Desbiens sat in the Wisconsin women's hockey office serving as an interpreter for her parents during a FaceTime interview.
The Desbiens were unsure about Madison as a second home until they visited their daughter two months later. Raynald and Claire drove from La Malbaie — a town of 8,800 located on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River — to witness Ann-Renée's official college debut.
A theme was born that day, Oct. 19, 2013: Desbiens made 17 saves and the Badgers shut out St. Cloud State 6-0 to complete a sweep of the WCHA series.
Like their daughter, the Desbiens fell hard for Madison, those in the women's hockey operation and Wisconsin fans who routinely sell out 2,273-seat LaBahn Arena.
"That's when you realize that that was the best place she could have ended up," Raynald said.
At one point, the Desbiens rose off the sofa and provided a small-screened tour of the house where their youngest child's awards — plaques, trophies, medals, jerseys and pictures — fill two rooms.
The Desbiens have made multiple trips to see Ann-Renée play for the Badgers, the most recent was for Senior Day on Feb. 12. She obliged by recording her 50th career shutout, an 8-0 pasting of Minnesota-Duluth that clinched their second straight WCHA regular-season title.
"When we're at the games, everyone comes and tries to talk to us," said Claire, a retired nurse. "We can't communicate with them, but we understand how much they love her and how much they care about her."
One in particular is Nyla Rettler-Pagel, a 4-year-old who struck up a friendship with Desbiens.
Prior to UW home games, Desbiens likes to come to the bench area and interact with the fans, but especially the kids.
After watching Desbiens engage her daughter, Tina Rettler-Pagel thanked Desbiens via Twitter and praised her for being a good role model.
The next time Desbiens saw Nyla, she came up into the stands and gave her a hug.
"She's a fantastic human being," Tina said of Desbiens. "She just adores these kids and, as a parent, seeing Ann-Renée interact with Nyla is just so special. It means a lot."
Nyla brings Desbiens pictures and flowers and wonders aloud when her friend can come to the house for a visit.
"We have imaginary Ann-Renées that eat dinner with us every day and play dolls," Tina said.
What does it say about Desbiens that she makes such an effort to connect?
"There's something so warm and gracious about her," Tina said. "I can't say enough about her."
The Rettler-Pagel family have traveled to watch the Badgers play and plan to be on hand for the WCHA Final Face-off in Minneapolis March 4 and 5 and the NCAA Frozen Four in St. Charles, Missouri, on March 17 and 19.
"Fingers crossed," Tina said.
The top-ranked Badgers (27-2-4 overall) have some work to do along the way. They host Minnesota State (7-24-4) in a best-of-three WCHA playoff series starting Friday at LaBahn.
The WCHA Final Face-off will give way to an NCAA quarterfinal game, expected to be at LaBahn, on March 11.
Desbiens has helped Wisconsin reach the NCAA semifinals three straight years, but each season has ended with a loss to WCHA rival Minnesota.
If the Badgers run the table, Desbiens would finish her career in championship style while tying the program record for career wins with 100.
Knowing her, there might be a shutout or two along the way.
"It was challenging," Desbiens said of her career at UW. "But I would do it all over again."