By Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press on December 19, 2023.
MONTREAL – It’s a win-win scenario for Montreal’s Professional Women’s Hockey League team this season.
With one of the world’s best goaltenders swatting pucks away, the team can focus its energy on scoring.
Canadian national team goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens is backstopping an offence-heavy Montreal team for the PWHL’s inaugural season, and she’s more than up for being the last line of defence on a team that’s bound to take some risks.
“I guess I’ll have to stop some pucks. It’ll be fun, if they score a lot of goals then I can let a little more in,” Desbiens joked after practice Tuesday at Centre 21.02 in Montreal’s Verdun borough.
Desbiens, a two-time world champion and Olympic medallist, helped Canada win gold at the 2022 Games with 38 saves in a 3-2 win over the United States in the final.
On Saturday, she turned away 22 shots and five shootout attempts in Canada’s 3-2 win over the Americans during a Rivalry Series matchup in Sarnia, Ont.
The 29-year-old from Clermont, Que., was one of Montreal’s first three signings alongside Canada captain Marie-Philip Poulin and forward Laura Stacey.
Although it’s not the team’s intention to leave Desbiens hanging out to dry, Stacey says having a goalie of that calibre allows the skaters to play their game freely.
“Having one of the best goaltenders, if not the best goaltender in the world, I think it’s just confidence,” she said. “We feel comfortable playing our way, we feel comfortable making maybe a riskier play or just being confident with the puck, because we know how confident she is back there.”
Sauvageau says the foundation for Montreal’s team is in a good place with Desbiens at one end of the ice, and Poulin, one of hockey’s most prolific scorers, at the other.
“You want to score and you don’t want to be scored on,” said Sauvageau. “So when you have Marie-Phillip who can score and Ann-Renée Desbiens who will deny that scoring, our chances to be successful, I mean, it’s a good feeling because you’re looking at both ends of the ice and you can say “˜well this is great.'”
Beyond the saves, Desbiens also spreads confidence in her team with her calm and unfazed demeanour, something she’s gained a reputation for in recent years.
Stacey remembers a time a coach “absolutely ripped into” Desbiens during a TV timeout at a Rivalry Series game, and the netminder followed up by having two of the best period’s Stacey had ever seen.
“It just didn’t even crack her,” said Stacey.
Poulin says sometimes all she needs is a look to know Desbiens is dialed in.
“The look that we give each other when it’s a big moment, when it’s a big game, we feel it,” said Poulin. “Those little moments when either after a big save or before faceoff, where I just go by her and I look in her eyes, and I see it.”
Desbiens admits that sometimes she’s not so calm on the inside.
“I’ll be honest, sometimes it’s terrifying for me as well and I get stressed, but I guess that’s one of my strengths – I don’t let it show,” she said. “Half of my job is body language and just how you make people feel. I’ve always found that when you look confident the players in front of you just play better and are not afraid to make mistakes.”
In college, Desbiens posted a .955 save percentage over four years at the University of Wisconsin and won the 2017 Patty Kazmaier Award as top player in women’s college hockey her senior year.
She followed that up by hanging up her skates for a year, partially because she didn’t think there was a viable women’s pro league in place, before returning to the game and becoming Canada’s top goalie.
“The fact that I came back and now I can say that I’m goign to play professional hockey is truly special,” Desbiens said. “It’s something that I didn’t think was going to be possible in my playing career.”
Montreal opens its season on a three-game road trip beginning on Jan. 2 in Ottawa, where over 5,000 tickets have already been sold at TD Place. The team will then hold its home opener Jan. 13 against Boston in Verdun.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2023.