Welcome to TXHT’s exclusive interview with Professional Women’s Hockey player Bulbul Kartanbay. The following interview took place over several emails starting September 23rd, 2020 through December 17th, 2020.
TXHT – Thank you for taking the time to sit down and speak with us. You’re an individual who has a very interesting story and a much different path that has been commonly taken to get to where you are today. I’d like to start with your early beginnings and learn more about what it was like to grow up in Kazakhstan. What was it like for you growing up in Kazakhstan?
Bulbul Kartanbay – My childhood was quite modest. It was time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, all young families had a hard time, so my grandmother raised me up to grade 5. She had a large farm with horses and rams, and also a huge plot of land where alfalfa grew. That’s why my childhood is associated with fresh milk and fresh horse meat. there were no phones or laptops, so I spent all my time playing outside. my childhood was full of happiness even I was grow up without my father. Kazakhstan is a very beautiful and hospitable country. Kazakhstan is a huge beautiful mountains and endless steppes. I love my homeland and am proud that I am Kazakh.
TXHT – In Kazakhstan, what were the top sports that everyone played while you were growing up?
KB – It was boxing. Kazakh wrestling. and nothing special for women.
TXHT – What was it about hockey that drew you to the game, and what/who were some of your biggest inspirations for wanting to become an ice hockey player?
KB – In Kazakhstan women’s Ice hockey is not a popular sport. I never knowed about hockey until I went to a sports school. Hockey is a daring sport and beautiful at the same time. I can not convey to me these emotions that hockey gives me. the sweetness of victories, the roar of the stands, rivalry.
TXHT – Knowing the limited resources you had in Kazakhstan for ice hockey, when was it that you decided that you needed to move out of your home country to pursue a professional career in ice hockey?
KB – When I went abroad for the first time with the women’s junior team to Slovakia. We played with the national teams of Switzerland, Slovakia, Italy, France. It was a very memorable time. I was impressed. I felt how small Women’s Ice Hockey in Kazakhstan. But I was young and didn’t think anything serious.
TXHT – I know Instagram has been a huge tool for you in gaining exposure. I’ll admit that it’s how I initially discovered you. How impactful has Instagram been for you in gaining some of the opportunities you’ve earned?
KB – To tell the truth, on Instagram I just meet new players all over the world and with different coaches and hockey schools. I’ve never made money on Instagram. I only found sticks sponsor for me ShaibaDe from Germany. Also my Twitter helped me a lot in 2017.
TXHT – When you came to North America you had a few tryouts with the Calgary Inferno of the CWHL. What were those experiences like for you, and what were some of the key things you learned from them?
KB – It was a great experience. I trained and played with world champions, with Olympic champions. it was amazing. I first saw such skills and such speeds. I grew up as a player. I was very insecure because of not knowing the language and because for the first time I was so far from home alone.
TXHT – After the 2018-19 season you had the opportunity to come to the NWHL and sign with the Metropolitan Riveters. When you learned that you had earned a contract with them, what was your initial reaction to the news?
KB – Of course I was happy, but it was not a surprise. I worked all summer, I trained without vacation. I flew into Buffalo, NY for a tryout, and flew to Minnesota for tryout. In the end I received two offers, and for some reason I chose the Riveters.
TXHT – When you joined the Riveters, what hurdles did you have to go through to make playing for them become a reality?
KB – I think morally I’m a little lost. There were problems with documents. I didn’t have a car. There was no money to take a taxi for additional training. The routine of life fell on my shoulders. Due to the fact that the coach did not allow me to play, my self-esteem dropped.
TXHT – You mention that you felt a little lost morally. How did you right the ship to not feel lost anymore morally?
KB – I’ve talked couple times with team psychologist. I don’t know why I was think that if I’m from Kazakhstan I am weak in hockey. but, when i started my rehab from concussion, I started work on my self physically and mentally. I think right now i am more mature and more ready for competition, life competition and game competition.
TXHT – The coach wasn’t playing you for the Riveters, and rightfully so your self-esteem dropped as a result. Did you have any conversations with the coach as to why you weren’t getting any playing time, and what you could improve upon to gain playing time?
KB – I had really short time to grow on the game, but I can tell you that I like this hockey level, pretty fast and aggressive. Most of time with me talked GM of Riveters, she was always support me and help. Well, I guess the coach didn’t see me as his player. there is was some of players who played like me, but he always was give them game time. I didn’t liked this experience with coach who don’t believe in me and don’t support. I can say that U.S and NWHL was whole different world for me. I talked one time with coach about my game time in the end of December, he said that I will get more time, because I was work hard, but you know, I got this stupid car accident.
TXHT – When you look at the 2019-20 season with the Riveters you were only able to play ten games due to an injury that was suffered in December in a car accident. What was your mindset both before and after the car accident happened?
KB – Before the accident, I was arranging documents, I asked the car from the general manager of the team, began to train every day, sometimes twice a day, and after accident I was depressed for a couple months. I was crying, because I was just at my peak of shape, confidence just started to come to me. I got a really really bad concussion, my head was swollen, and I know no one wants an injured player, especially when you got 0 points. deep down, I knew the Riveters were will not renew my contract, so I wanted to rehabilitate faster and start training again. it was only in October that I discovered that there were two small fracture in my eye retina, all left from a car accident. I underwent laser surgery and am now recovering.
TXHT – One of the things you mentioned is your documents. Did you receive any help from the NWHL or the Riveters in working on your documents so you could play and get paid?
KB – Yeah, the League applied for athletes visa and finally i got my Social Security Number in the beginning of January. in the end of November they started pay salary. The Riveters GM Kate Whitman helped me with accommodation, I was stay with host family in Morristown, NJ.
TXHT – After the Riveters season ended what were your initial plans in regards to the 2020-21 season?
KB – I thought to go home. and come again in the summer to train, but I spent the entire quarantine in rehabilitation and recovery. Because of the virus, I cannot fly home because the borders were closed.
TXHT – After learning the Riveters were not going to re-sign you, what were some of the next steps that you took to keep your dream of playing professionally alive?
KB – I waited for an answer until the end of July. Because the coach said that they would call everyone and talk, but that never happened. The hardest part was waiting, not getting an answer ‘no’. Then I started to study and see what opportunities I have, what leagues there are and where I can continue to play. and I found that PWHPA opened a team in New Hampshire and it’s not that far from New Jersey because I just started to get used to Princeton, NJ.
TXHT – Earlier this month it was announced that you’ve joined the PWHPA. What was it that made you ultimately decide to sign on with the PWHPA for the 2020-21 season?
KB – I was in extended temporary roster, and of course, I could not even be in time for the tryout because I had some issue with the documents. You know it’s hard when you have to figure out everything by yourself. Especially when you in different country.
TXHT – Do you still hope that you can return to the NWHL if a spot were to open up, and if it were the right fit for both you and the team?
KB – Well, I had emails from couple teams from NWHL that they will let me know if they will need players. So, who knows, and also, just wanna mention that I don’t have any business about what is going on between NWHL and PWHPA. I am just a Kazakh Female Athlete, who came to USA to play hockey, to improve myself, to grow myself mentally and physically. If there is will be chance in the future play for any leagues, I will play.
TXHT – What does the future hold for Bulbul Kartanbay? Do you have any projects that you are working on that you would like to discuss?
KB – I was in Turkey for 3 weeks, I helped to coach Istanbul kids club and was practice sometimes. and I am in Kazakhstan right now, skating with junior team, because cant play full contact yet, and helping coach Almaty sport school (high school) team, and I feel great about that because I started in the same sport school (high school). I am working with Princeton Hockey and UWHL. In my plans I would like to invite or bring some international players to the USA and help them along the way. I am also working on my brand, part of the money from sales will go to the fund to help children and women athletes. I have lots of stuff to do, and it’s just beginning.
TXHT – We thank Bulbul for her time in answering our questions, and she will be appearing on the TXHT Podcast this upcoming January.