Desbiens takes it step by step

by Kristen Shilton || AHL On The Beat Archive

Plenty of hockey players dream of suiting up professionally one day. Guillaume Desbiens thought he’d made it by age four.

“My brother Alex is five years older than I am and he was playing hockey [for the Rimouski Cougars]. His coach asked me to be the mascot of the team,” Desbiens said. “I would skate on the ice before the players came on. I had a flag with the logo of the team on it and I felt like I was playing in the NHL doing that.

“I wasn’t even playing hockey really, but I loved it.”

Suffice it to say, Desbiens has made a few strides since then. The 27-year old Alma, Que., native is back with the Chicago Wolves after two stints with the team from 2005-07 and a 28-game run during their 2008 Calder Cup season.

But this past summer, he wasn’t sure where he was going to end up. Without a contract for the first time since the summer of ’08, Desbiens finally signed a one-year pact with the National Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks, an organization he’d played with twice before.

“I never felt much anxiety in this business until I didn’t have a contract,” Desbiens said. “With the NHL lockout looming, teams were saying, ‘Let’s wait, let’s wait,’ and weren’t signing players so it was pretty stressful.

“I was able to sign and that was a bit of a relief, but I only signed for one year so at the end of this season I’m right back to where I was. You have to perform really well so you get another contract.”

Desbiens has good reason to keep his eye on the future. After years focused on taking steps in his career, Desbiens took another kind of leap in July when he wed his fiancée, Ally, in front of close friends and family on a beach in St. Maarten. Now they’re getting ready to start a family of their own – Ally is due with their first child, a daughter, on Christmas Eve.

“With my wife being pregnant, I have this sense of needing to provide for my child. It’s not about you or your wife, it’s about this life you’re bringing into the world and you want to give the baby the best chance possible,” Desbiens said.

“These days, we just moved into our place, so we’re moving stuff around getting the nursery ready. We’re buying her a lot of stuff. It’s fun putting it all together.”

Stepping into the role of first-time father can be daunting, but Desbiens considers himself lucky to have a mentor in Alex. The big brother he once idolized for his hockey skills is now the man he looks to exemplify through this next stage of life.

“My brother has always been my biggest role model, and not just because he’s my brother,” Desbiens said. “He is always working really hard. When I got married, one of the things I told him was if 10 years from now I can be half the man you are, I’ll be happy.”

The years between them have meant different realities at different times, but the fortitude and resilience Desbiens has exhibited throughout his career remain a point of admiration for his former protector.

“I always kept Guillaume around me when we were kids. I always wanted to show him the ropes and help him understand things when he was young,” Alex said. “Some of those lessons were about hockey, but there was more to it. I’m very proud of his success because the steps he has taken have been big ones. When he left Chicago and didn’t have a contract, he had to go to Manitoba and really prove to everyone he could play professional hockey.

“A lot of the time, people just give up when things get hard. They’ll decide they can do something else instead, but Guillaume never looked back. He just kept pushing and believing.”

Desbiens never saw any other choice. After departing from the Wolves following the 2007-08 season, the right wing had the opportunity to walk on with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose (then the Canucks’ affiliate).

It was a 25-game contract he turned into a three-year stint with the team. Scott Arniel, now the head coach of the Wolves and former coach of the Moose, remembers well the impression Desbiens made, and acknowledges how far he’s come.

“When I coached him in Manitoba, Guillaume was just a young kid trying to find himself professionally,” Arniel said. “Since then he’s rounded out his game, figured out what his strengths are and he has developed into a physical presence, but one that can make plays. He’s matured in his game.”

Desbiens took enough steps with the Moose to earn his first NHL experience with the Canucks out of training camp in 2010. Stepping onto the ice for his first game was a “surreal” experience, and he wasn’t the only one in awe of the moment.

“When I first started playing hockey, I really wanted to play in the NHL, but everyone says that,” he said. “I don’t even know if I really believed I would do it, but I knew I wanted to. I got emails from my neighbors, who would have seen me playing hockey in the street when I was really young, and they’d be like ‘Remember when you used to say you were going to play in the NHL? You actually did it.’ I thought their praise was pretty cool.”

It’s cooler still since, as one of the smaller kids in his neighborhood growing up, Desbiens wasn’t exactly a popular pick in street hockey, as his brother can attest.

“Guillaume always wanted to see me practice and was always at the arena to watch all the players when he was young,” Alex said. “He wasn’t really old enough to play too much then, but he always wanted to learn.

“We played hockey on the street all winter as kids and he was the guy that never got chosen for teams because he was the youngest. I always had to take him on my team and I made him be the goalie because nobody ever wanted to do that. Now everyone would want him on a team.”

But the thrill of Guillaume finally achieving his childhood goal was soon overshadowed by struggle. During a Canucks game against the Colorado Avalanche on Nov. 25, 2010, Desbiens broke his hand in a fight right before the team traveled to Quebec.

The disappointed friends and family who hoped see him in action, though, was nothing compared to Desbiens’ personal turmoil.

“It was hard breaking my hand. It was an emotional roller coaster,” Desbiens said. “I worked so hard that summer and making the team was awesome and I couldn’t believe I was there.

“Even when my hand was broken, I still thought I’d stay up there with the Canucks. So when I was sent down to the Moose it was pretty shocking. I was heartbroken. When your girlfriend dumps you, it’s hard. But this was even harder.”

While it may not have been the fairy-tale ending he hoped for, Desbiens never relented. While playing with the Abbotsford Heat last season, he earned a 10-game call-up to the Calgary Flames. Now back where his AHL career first began, Arniel tapped Desbiens as a Wolves alternate captain.

“Guillaume’s a real character player. He gets a lot of admiration from his teammates because he’s out there blocking shots and sticking up for the guys,” Arniel said. “He has taken advantage of his opportunities and he’s done it the hard way. His story and his drive are a great example for other players. I felt he earned the [alternate captain] letter.”

The story of how far Desbiens – and the Wolves – push this season has yet to be written, but memories of the team winning a championship still stick with Desbiens, albeit adjacent to ones of a gut-wrenching loss.

“When we won the Calder Cup in Chicago, that was a great experience,” he said. “But I wasn’t really a big part of that team. I wasn’t playing a whole lot. The year after, in Manitoba, we went to the Finals. We didn’t win, but playing in front of sold-out crowds in Winnipeg and Hershey, I felt like I was playing for the Stanley Cup.

“We lost, and it hurt like hell, but those are probably the best memories of my hockey career.”

Now, he’s making new memories, on and off the ice. Pledging to work on his consistency and maintain his physicality, Desbiens tries not to think about what could have been, lest he lose sight of what is.

“I’m not a one-dimensional player; I feel like I can do a lot of things,” he said. “I would never have gotten anywhere close to the NHL if all I could do was fight.

I have a lot of tools and I work at developing them and bringing my game to the next level.”