It’s not every night a Canadian goaltender faces over 50 shots.
It’s typically the other way around. Canada registered 167 shots over its first three games of the women’s Olympic hockey tournament in Beijing, bolstered heavily by a whopping 70-shot effort against Switzerland in the opener. That adds up to a shots-per-game average of 55, with the two other games hitting 48 and 49, respectively.
So for Canada to allow 53 shots, even against a team as strong as the United States, is crazy. But so was the performance by new national team starting goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens, who turned away 51 of the disks sent her way. If it wasn’t for one of the greatest performances by a Canadian goaltender at an Olympic Games, Canada probably wouldn’t have entered the medal round as the top-ranked team.
These Olympics, in particular, serve as a bit of a changing of the guard in the Canadian crease, and Tuesday’s game was the toughest experience yet.
Shannon Szabados, the team’s long-time No. 1 with three Olympic tournaments under her belt. She has an all-time record of 8-1-0 with four shutouts and has rarely ever crumbled under pressure. Her one loss? The gold medal game against the United States in 2018, although she played fantastic in the instant classic.
But Szabados hasn’t played since 2019-20, which also marked her final tournament to date with Canada’s national team at the World Championship that year. Szabados hasn’t officially retired, having taken time off to be with her newborn daughter, but Canada has definitely put its trust in the 27-year-old Desbiens.
Desbiens has been in the Hockey Canada system for over a decade, starting with a silver medal at the 2011 U-18 World Championship. Like many top women’s players, Desbiens played against boys at the midget level, posting impressive stats with the Beaubourg Seigneurs Midget AA team in Quebec in 2011-12. She then embarked on an incredible NCAA career, posting an all-time record of 99-14-9 with a .89 GAA, .960 SP and an incredible 55 shutouts in just 122 games, making her one of the greatest goalies in NCAA history.
Desbiens, who took off the season following the 2018 Olympics where she served as a backup to Szabados, played a game in the men’s Great Lakes Hockey League, winning her only start. Desbiens hasn’t played a ton of hockey since, other than in some PWHPA action, but she hasn’t lost a game at the World Championship or the Olympics in her entire career.
Is that good? Yeah, that’s pretty good.
At 5-foot-9, Desbiens only trails behind fellow Canadian netminder Kristen Campbell as the tallest goaltender at the Olympics. That size plays to Desbiens’ advantage in the crease, and she’s got the swift movement you’d expect from a smaller netminder than herself. Add in a quick, active glove hand and the ability to seemingly find pucks through traffic and she’s got all the makings of a star goaltender at this level.
One college scout likened her play to Jonathan Quick, who, at one point, was one of the best athletic goaltenders in the NHL, using his quick lateral movements to make himself one of the best goaltenders for much of the 2010s.
“She’s athletic like what we saw out of Quick during Los Angeles’ Cup runs,” they said. “She moves well, doesn’t over-commit too much but if she does, she gets back swiftly enough.”
Canada doesn’t always need good goaltending. Barring a mind-blowing performance at the other end, Desbiens, like Szabados before her, rarely has to be the best player on the ice. But Desbiens proved Canada can rely on her in big moments, something that’s going to be important in the road ahead.
“Anne showed time and time again why she wins us games,” Erin Ambrose told CBC after Tuesday’s game. “She makes saves at the right moments and it feels great to play in front of her.”
And that sentiment is shared by so many of Desbiens’ teammates, past and present. The biggest challenge of her career is still on the horizon, with Canada expected to make the gold medal game once more. Desbiens showed what she could do in Calgary during the summer – but nothing matches with winning the Olympics.
With Desbiens at the helm, Canada couldn’t have asked for a much better option.