Guillaume Desbiens has faced more than a few hurdles in his career, but he keeps putting one skate in front of the other to make the most of his opportunities.
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"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 made a few strides since then. The 27-year old Alma, Quebec native is back with the Chicago Wolves after two stints with the team from 2005-2007 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 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 I'm right back to where I was at the end of this season. You have to perform really well so you get another contract."
Good thing Desbiens has never shied away from proving himself. When he departed from the Wolves after the '08 season, the right-winger 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's 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. "For me, 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 use to say you were going to play in the NHL? You actually did it.' I was always the youngest kid and the smallest kid and everyone was always beating up on me, so in my head I thought their praise was pretty cool."
Desbiens making it to hockey's highest echelon was an inspiring moment for his family as well. To Alex, Desbiens' success was proof of the long way his little brother had come since the days and nights they spent playing puck in the streets, where Desbiens wasn't exactly a popular pick.
"Growing up, Guillaume always wanted to see me practice and was always at the arena to watch all the players," 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 Desbiens 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. It was right before the team travelled to Montreal, close to his hometown. 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. "You work so hard to do something like that. 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 had the feeling I'd stay up there with the Canucks so when I was sent down to the Moose, that 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, but the ghosts of his past followed. With the Canucks, Desbiens didn't register a single point, and he was determined not to taint his second chance by making the same errors.
"The first time I was in Vancouver, I was nervous. You don't play like you usually do when you're nervous, you're just playing not to make mistakes," Desbiens said. "It's good not to make mistakes, but you don't want to play nervous all the time. When I played last year in Calgary, I was way more comfortable because I had been there already. I felt like I was actually playing the way I was supposed to. It made me wish I had played that way during my time in Vancouver. Maybe it would have made a difference, but it's all 'if.' If I get the chance again, I know how I'll do it differently."
Until the NHL ends their lockout, Desbiens' NHL goals will just have to wait. In the meantime, he was named an alternate captain of the Wolves' this season, a decision Arniel didn't hesitate over.
"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's a big part of the leadership group we have here. He's 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."
Like many athletes, Desbiens' whole life until now has been consumed by taking steps in sport. But last summer he took a different kind of leap, tying the knot with his fiancée Ally on a beach in St. Maarten, in front of close friends and family. 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 for some, 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's kind of a smaller guy, so he never made it in professional hockey, but he had a really big heart. I know it sounds cliché but he was always working really hard. Now, in life, he is still working really hard. When I got married, one of the things I told him was if ten 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 for the two brothers, 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," he 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's 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. It was a very important experience for him and I was very proud to see him do it. 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."
How far Desbiens – and the Wolves – push this season has yet to be written. Memories of the team winning a championship still stick with Desbiens, albeit adjacent to ones of a gut wrenching loss.
"When we won the cup in Chicago, that was a great experience," he said. "But I wasn't really a big part of that team. I was part of the team, but I wasn't playing a whole lot. I have good memories of watching the guys play but I didn't feel as much a part of that accomplishment as I would have liked to. 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."