Four years ago, the Canadian goalie watched from the bench as the USA snatched gold in a shoot-out in PyeongChang. She only got on the ice for one game in Korea – a shut-out against OAR. At that time, she thought her hockey career was over and prepared for a new life in accountancy.
But crunching numbers could not compete with catching pucks and, via a spell coaching in Wisconsin and then in Canada’s national program, Desbiens was lured back onto the ice.
This month proves that her choice added up.
“I came back for this. For exactly this reason,” she said after her 38 saves backstopped Canada to victory in the gold-medal game in Beijing.
“Four years ago it was very difficult. There were definitely some tears, not happy tears. I thought I was done. I never thought I would have a gold medal at all around my neck.
“To be here, to have it, to take it home with me, to share it with my family and friends, my hometown; I didn't think was going to be possible.”
Desbiens played in five of Canada’s seven games in Beijing, allowing just nine goals. A 94% save ratio was the third best in the tournament and her GAA was a miserly 1.31. The reward was a gold medal – and a more philosophical view of the game.
In the intervening four years, Desbiens, now 27, believes she learned a lot about herself. "When I decided to come back I just made sure I did everything I could to be the best I could be,” she said. “That's something I've brought, day in and day out in practice, on and off the ice.
"I've learned to not worry about the things that are out of my hands. Whether I was starting today or not, I couldn't be more proud of this team.”
And commitment to the team is a big part of what drives Desbiens – and the whole Canadian success in Beijing. Whether it’s inspirational captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who delivered yet another game-winning goal in on the big occasion, or her goaltending colleagues Emerance Maschmeyer and Kristen Campbell, it’s all about unity.
Desbiens coached Campbell at Wisconsin and was thrilled to have her and Maschmeyer on the same Olympic line-up here. “My two goalie partners are my best friends on this team,” she added. “To represent these two, to win a goal medal for them, there’s no other goalies I’d want to do it with.”
And as for Captain Clutch, well, that’s a long-standing inspiration.
“Having [Poulin] put the medal round my neck means a lot,” said the golden goalie. “We have been through such a lot. We were training together in Montreal, we had some ups-and-downs there through COVID, not being able to do some things.
“I watched her in 2010, 2014, just doing the things she does best. Now to be standing next to her, and for her to put that gold medal round my neck, is even more of a dream.
“I don’t know of a more deserving captain to win that gold medal for us.”
The appreciation is a two-way street. Captain Poulin spoke warmly of Desbiens, who followed up 51 saves in group play against the Americans with 38 more in the final.
“Ann has been ready to go since day one here and she showed up in those big moments,” Poulin said. “She is a goalie who is going to do the job when it’s time. She has made big saves. She kept us in the game and being able to give the medal to her felt very special.”
Sarah Nurse was a team-mate of Desbiens for four seasons with University of Wisconsin and describes her longstanding colleague as “the best goalie in the world”.
No surprise, then, where she credits a big chunk of Canada’s golden campaign.
“She’s been huge for us,” Nurse said in the aftermath of that gold medal game. “Being able to play with her for the last seven or eight years has been pretty special. I’ve seen how good she is from when she was a fresher in college, so I knew she could come here and have a huge impact on our team.
“A huge part of this gold medal is because of her.”