The most remarkable aspect of Wisconsin junior goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens’ meteoric rise into the NCAA women’s hockey history books isn’t that she’s already got 20 shutouts this season or that she is just six shy of the NCAA career record of 43 shutouts.
Nor is it that if the season ended today, her .961 save percentage and .75 goals-against average would both be NCAA records.
Would you believe Desbiens — who was just accepted into graduate school for accounting and is an all-conference academic — didn’t speak a lick of English before arriving in Madison, Wis., three years ago from La Malbaie, Québec?
“Software is wonderful,” Desbiens said. “It could translate where I needed to go. I knew it was going to be tough at first, but when you throw yourself into a language like I had to you learn it pretty quick. I started feeling comfortable about six weeks in to being here.”
None of Desbiens’ teammates speak French, so early on Desbiens would go to her classes, return to her dorm room exhausted and study till about 5 p.m. before calling her family back home to talk in French.
The one spot she never had any problem communicating was on the ice, and she’s a key reason why Wisconsin is headed to the NCAA Frozen Four with a 35-3-1 record and the No. 2 seed. The Badgers dominated No. 7 Mercyhurst 6-0 on Saturday in a tournaent quarterfinal as Desbiens made 22 saves to earn her 21st shutout of the season.
Desbiens continues to lead the nation in goals-against average (0.71) and save percentage (.962). She has blanked each of the Badgers’ five postseason opponent this year.
In a tournament filled with great goaltending, Desbiens stands out as one of three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award for the best female player in the game. She lived up to that billing with 35 saves in last week’s epic WCHA title game, a 1-0 win over rival Minnesota, the defending Frozen Four champions.
The Badgers and Gophers will meet for a sixth time this season (the Badgers lead 3-2) in the first round of the Frozen Four. The winner will likely face a Boston College team seeking to become only the second team in women’s college history to finish with a perfect record.
Desbiens and the Badgers have plans of hoisting the cup themselves and completing their own dream season.
“I still don’t believe all that’s going on right now,” Desbiens said. “I feel like my teammates are doing a good job in front of me of keeping teams on the outside and keeping the puck in the offensive zone. There are games where I’ve gone 10 to 12 minutes without a shot. That can be tough for a goalie to keep focus, but I’ve gotten used to it and anyone who saw us play Minnesota knows it is a team effort.”
One thing that helped Desbiens prepare for the college game, she said, is that she grew up playing in leagues in Quebec against men so the pace of the game wasn’t any faster than what she was used to.
“I played against the men in juniors and it was pretty good preparation,” she said. “The guys’ shots were harder and faster, but I had to change my mentality here to control the rebounds more. I really feel our defense is a team effort.”
How she arrived in Wisconsin is another story.
The Badgers were already loaded at goalie with Alex Rigsby in net. Wisconsin thought it was going to lose Rigsby, a would-be senior, to the U.S. Olympic squad so it went on a late recruiting trip to fill a void.
Assistant coach Jackie Friesen was serving as an assistant with the Canadian 18-U team that Desbiens was competing on when one day she asked what her college plans were.
“I told her I hadn’t thought about it and she told me I needed to,” Desbiens said. “Once I took a tour of the Wisconsin campus I knew this is where I wanted to be.”
Rigsby didn’t make the Olympic team, and was injured midway through her senior season, opening the door for Desbiens, who stepped in and went 11-1.
The rest, as they say, is history.