An Olympic year in college women’s hockey poses a unique problem that few, if any, other collegiate sports experience. That’s because women’s hockey is really the only sport that summons players from the college ranks to play at the Olympic level. For those on the United States Women’s National Team, that means almost a yearlong commitment, causing collegiate players who make the team to miss an entire season of action.
So when Wisconsin women’s hockey coach Mark Johnson laid out the groundwork for this season, he had to assume there was a strong possibility he would lose his starting goaltender Alex Rigsby, who had already set the record for the most saves in a career as a junior. In such a situation, Johnson would have been left with only two goaltenders on his roster, neither of whom had seen a shot in a game during their career.
With this in mind, Johnson went on the recruiting trail to ensure that he would have a minimum of three goaltenders. Johnson delivered and came back with Ann-Renée Desbiens, a netminder from La Malbaie, Quebec.
“It’s a puzzle that college coaches have to put together and sometimes it’s easier than other times,” Johnson said of putting together a complete roster. “It’s worked out for a lot of different reasons.”
But in a bittersweet turn of events, Rigsby missed the Olympic cut this past summer, taking Johnson from a dire situation with only two goaltenders to an equally unique one with four that included his senior captain.
When the season began, Rigsby was the clear choice at No. 1, but there was still a battle brewing in the logjam of three behind her, which, according to Johnson, has done nothing but help his squad.
“The nice thing about having what we have is there’s competition,” Johnson said. “I think you see it in practice. They’re very competitive and what ends up happening is everybody gets better because of it.”
After displaying a great deal of commitment to her position coupled with her natural ability, Desbiens pulled away from the other two goaltenders and put herself in a spot that left Johnson no choice but to have to work her into a game situation.
Desbiens started her first game against St. Cloud State Oct. 19, earning the shutout in a 6-0 victory, and then started two more games against Lindenwood and Northeastern Oct. 26 and Nov. 15, respectively, winning both of those as well.
However, Rigsby was still the go-to option and started the next five games in a row. But during the second period of the fifth game, a scoreless and crucial battle with Minnesota-Duluth, Rigsby hurt her knee and had to come out of the game.
“I was like sitting on bench and then I saw her coming and I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ She was like, ‘You’re in.’ And I’m like, ‘OK.’ Coach took a timeout and I get a few shots [to warm up],” Desbiens said. “We were seeing a lot of shots in practice, game and shootout … so it was just like one more shot. Just think like that — just another shot. Don’t put too much pressure on me, just one by one and shift by shift.”
In relief for her injured teammate, Desbiens came up with one of the more clutch performances of the season, stopping all 14 shots she faced and keeping the shutout intact to earn a hard-fought 1-0 road victory that also earned her the WCHA Rookie of the Week honor.
For the three series since that UMD game, Rigsby has remained on the bench and Desbiens has come on to replace her, a situation that was supposed to happen, only for a different reason.
In the absence of her injured teammate, Desbiens has come up quite big in net, standing on her head on multiple occasions to keep second-ranked Wisconsin steady at second place in the WCHA standings.
Then this past weekend against fourth-ranked North Dakota, Desbiens suffered the first loss of her college career as the Badgers fell 4-1 in the first game, dropping her record to 8-1-0 on the year.
But as Desbiens said, she knew her team had another important game Sunday in the series finale, and tried to put the loss aside. With the way she played Sunday, the response to her first loss was loud and clear. Wisconsin triumphed 4-1 and Desbiens came up with 29 saves on 30 shots, a performance highlighted by a sliding save on a two-on-o breakaway chance for North Dakota and capped off with a flurry of sprawling saves in the waning moments before Wisconsin tallied the final goal with the UND goaltender pulled.
“I can’t really say I’m surprised. She’s a great goaltender and I saw that since the first day I saw her practice with us. She’s a very athletic girl and you’ll see that on and off the ice,” Rigsby said. “The position she puts herself in — I don’t think I could put myself into those. She’s very athletic. I’m not really surprised. She’s filled her role very well, and I’ve been lucky that she’s been able to take over while I’m trying to recover.”
Now, with Rigsby on the verge of making her return to play in the next couple of weeks, Johnson has a unique decision on his hands of who to play. Regardless of whether Desbiens continues to start, though, her expanded playing time can only help her in the weeks and years to come.
“Ann’s been fortunate to get a lot of playing [time] and will grow because of this,” Johnson said. “So every game she plays in she’s probably going to get more comfortable.”
In a way, these last few months represent what was supposed to be this season for the Badgers but with several twists and turns that almost no one expected. In hindsight, the decision to bring in Desbiens has paid large dividends for Johnson. Now what remains to be seen is what the future holds.
“As I look at it right now, it’s worked out very well,” Johnson said. “What’s going to happen in the next two months I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball right now. Alex has certainly made some strides, and again, it puts you in a situation where if everybody is healthy, we’re stronger because of it.”