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Catching up with Bulbul Kartanbay

The NWHL’s first Kazakh player discusses what comes next now that she has signed with the Riveters

China v Kazakhstan - 2019 World Women’s Ice Hockey Championships Class A Group B Photo by Xinyu Cui/Getty Images

On Aug. 9, The Ice Garden published a feature interview with Team Kazakhstan’s Bulbul Kartanbay about her dream of playing professional hockey in the United States of America. One week later, the National Women’s Hockey League announced that Kartanbay had signed with the Metropolitan Riveters. After countless hours of training and against some steep odds, it looks like her dream is coming true.

The Good News

The Ice Garden caught up with Kartanbay after the news of her signing broke to discuss what life has been like since she heard the news and the details of the next chapter of her hockey career. As you can imagine, she and her family back home in Kazakhstan have been overjoyed with the news.

“I called my mom right after the calls [with Riveters’ general manager Kate Whitman-Annis],” Kartanbay told The Ice Garden. “It was an incredible feeling telling her the good news, but it is unfortunate that she is so far away. My family was very happy for me!”

In our first interview with Bulbul, she revealed that she came close to quitting the game that she loved after visa issues prevented her from playing with the Boston Blades for the 2017-18 season. However, the support she received from her mother convinced her to resume chasing a dream that began in a country with only 39 indoor ice hockey rinks and 171 registered female players, according to the IIHF.

“It was a big disappointment. If it wasn’t for my mom believing in me and helping me, I would probably not be playing right now.”

Kartanbay was also quick to share the news with Kristen Hagg, the general manager of the Calgary Inferno. Last year, Hagg opened her home in western Canada to Kartanbay because she wanted to help her pursue her dream. She also invited her to the Inferno’s training camp so that she could get a taste of professional women’s hockey at an elite level.

Hagg’s generosity, the experience that Kartanbay gained from Calgary’s training camp, and the season she spent playing in the Southern Alberta Women’s Hockey Association all helped this unlikely dream become a reality.

“Yes, I definitely shared the news with Kristen,” Bulbul shared. “She is happy for me and proud of my persistence. She opened this door of opportunity by inviting me to Canada and also gave me the opportunity to train with a professional team. She helped me begin my thorny path to the NWHL.”

An Unexpected Choice

In addition to the contract she signed with the Riveters, Kartanbay was offered a contract and a roster spot by a second NWHL team. The 26-year-old forward would not disclose which of the league’s other four clubs also offered her a contract, but earlier this summer she participated in free agent camps with both the Minnesota Whitecaps and the Buffalo Beauts.

“I was happy to receive phone calls from two general managers,” said Kartanbay. “I was chosen to play for two teams! Of course, this made me twice as excited. It was really difficult to choose between them, because both are great teams.”

The path that Kartanbay took to the NWHL is undoubtedly unique. However, she makes a point to emphasize that this didn’t come about as a result of good luck. She uses the word “thorny” to describe her journey for good reason. More than anything, her perseverance and dedication to training is what brought her to the NWHL.

“Two years ago, when I met Sami Jo Small [in Kazakhstan], I realized there was a chance,” she told The Ice Garden. “It’s a big deal to play in NWHL for players from countries like Kazakhstan, where women’s hockey has only just started to develop. I thought, ‘God, help me! And I will do my part to make it happen.’ It became my main goal. I dreamed big and worked hard to achieve it. It wasn’t just luck!”

Now that the dream has come true, Kartanbay has had time to reflect on the road she took to get here and to embrace this new reality.

Life in the U.S.

As a member of the Riveters, she will be playing in New Jersey, just a short distance from the most influential city on the globe. She is particularly excited about seeing Times Square and seeing the city that Kazakh boxing star Gennady Golovkin — also known as “GGG” or “Triple G” — has boxed in multiple times.

Whitman-Annis helped Kartanbay find a local family with three kids who play hockey to live with for the duration of the season. The arrangement sounds similar to those that exist between billet families and junior ice hockey players in North America. That stability and support should help Kartanbay adjust to life off the ice in the U.S. in a big way. So too should the presence of her Russian teammate Tatiana Shatalova and the Riveters’ young European head coach Ivo Mocek.

Fortunately for Kartanbay, she is already familiar with her home rink. She participated in the VSK Hockey Camp at ProSkate Arena, the new home of the Metropolitan Riveters, this summer. “I am excited that we will play at [ProSkate],” Kartanbay shared. “It is a well-equipped arena, and I liked training there a lot. It helped to have Russian-speaking coaches.”

Kartanbay is currently working with her lawyer on the details of her work visa. She’s optimistic about the process and the NWHL assisting in any way that they can, despite the fact that visa issues prevented her from playing with the Boston Blades during the 2017-18 CWHL season. In the event that there are any issues, the Riveters’ preseason game against LIU is still over a month away — and the start of the season itself isn’t until Oct. 5.

While she waits for an answer on her visa, Kartanbay’s focus remains on her offseason training. She recently practiced in Minnesota at the OS Hockey Camp, which is coached by several members of the Minnesota Whitecaps and is directed by Whitecaps’ founder and icon Winny Brodt-Brown. Each day she spends training on and off the ice brings her another day closer to the moment where she will finally make her debut as a pro player in the United States.

“The start of the season is always exciting,” Kartanbay told The Ice Garden. “I hope this season will be great for me and my team. I also hope the experience I get from playing games and practicing at this level will help with my development. I also hope the Riveters will be successful in our pursuit of winning the Isobel Cup!”