With the female game beginning to take shape throughout Asia, including parts of the Pacific rim and segments of the Middle East, an enthusiastic and compelling figure from Kazakhstan has become an ambassador for its growth. Bulbul Kartanbay, a competitor for the national team and a star player for Tomiris Astana, ponders the future with profound purpose.
Looking to give back to the game, dedicated towards providing opportunities for a new generation of players, the commendable focus of Kartanbay represented the realization of a dream. Taking on the role of builder, in addition to remaining competitive on the ice, her hockey odyssey encompassed a combination of tenacity with desire to succeed, the type of qualities for younger players to emulate.
Discovering the game as a teenager, upon her family relocating to the Almaty region, Kartanbay quickly became a promising player. Earning a place on the Kazakhstan Under-18 National Team, the first step in a career that later involved participation in a pair of Olympic qualifying tournaments; her efforts remain focused on opportunity. Launching a Women’s Hockey Academy in 2021, with a current attendance of 82 players, it holds the potential to be her greatest legacy.
Spearheading another exciting initiative, organizing an International Women’s Ice Hockey Camp for spring 2022, the first of its kind in Kazakhstan, Kartanbay may have established the foundation upon which to spur unprecedented growth. Held in Nur-Sultan (Astana) at Barys Ice Arena, even speaking to the city’s mayor about her initiative, with players from several nations participating, including nearby India and the United Arab Emirates, the fostering of friendship and encouragement strengthened a shared love of the game.
Worth noting, Alena Mills, a participant for Czechia at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games took on the role of guest instructor at said Camp. Providing a significant highlight, Mills acumen and experience were most welcome, her presence encompassed the objective of uniting players from different places. Simultaneously, the camp was an extension of Kartanbay’s highly admirable efforts to stimulate the game’s growth in Kazakhstan, positively influencing the sporting culture. In addition to the Camp, her Kartanbay Foundation provides an integral assist, helping aspiring players obtain equipment, while providing an environment to see their skills develop.
“The first International Women’s Hockey Camp in Kazakhstan was my dream since I was in New Jersey, USA during 2019. I saw the difference between our levels of play. I was impressed with how big hockey is in Canada and the USA.
Additionally, I was looking to developing women’s hockey in Kazakhstan. When I was 13 years old, I did not have that many options. This way, the girls will benefit.
I am trying to give them a big chance to grow the game and get more passionate about the sport. It is also a healthy lifestyle. I wanted to involve more international players together. They feel stronger and confident, plus it is fun and enjoyable.
It was enjoyable that Alena Mills was able to travel and serve as an instructor. She showed me lots of cool stuff, along with my coaches and my students. I enjoyed the work of the girls from Emirates, who did great. I admire them very much!”
Akin to many other international players, a strong North American influence was the stimulus to succeed. Kartanbay’s path included competition in both Canada and the United States. Inspired by a meeting with goaltender Sami Jo Small, a Winter Games gold medalist who is highly articulate and a wonderful ambassador for the game’s growth internationally, Kartanbay aspired to play in the CWHL, a league Small helped co-found.
Selected by the Boston Blades in the 2017 CWHL Draft, Kartanbay also attended the Calgary Inferno’s training camp in 2018. Spending the 2018-19 season with the Southern Alberta Women’s Hockey Association, she amassed 29 points as a member of the Calgary Coyotes, demonstrating her offensive skills, along with the potential to reach new summits in her career.
The following season, Kartanbay ventured to the American Northeast. Making history as the first player born in Kazakhstan to compete in the NWHL (rebranded as the PHF), Kartanbay donned the jersey of the Metropolitan Riveters. Wearing the number 99, approaching the season with high hopes, the lessons learned extended beyond the competitive atmosphere.
Making her Riveters debut on October 5, 2019, a 4-2 loss versus the Boston Pride, Kartanbay managed one shot on goal. Before Christmas, a December 14, 2019 affair against the Minnesota Whitecaps represented her final appearance for the season.
Although a series of unforeseen setbacks prevented Kartanbay from enjoying a full season, the exposure to such a high caliber of play proved highly worthwhile. Also serving as a head coach in the Princeton Tiger Lillies organization in 2019-20, working in their 14U division, it stood as testament to her passion for the game. Despite the season not turning out as planned, the display of character and growth as both, player and person, provided a highly positive learning experience.
“It was a great time, but also the toughest time in my life. The successes and the issues came together. Unfortunately, I was not able to get my paperwork done until the middle of season. Plus, I also had a very bad car accident on December 31, 2019. I missed half the season.
With lots of health issues and a concussion, it felt like a broken season, a broken dream. Yet, I am glad that I was able to get through it, as it made me mature and stronger.
Overall, it was a great experience. I grew in the game and saw my opportunities as a player. To see how fast I could be and how good I could shoot. To come all this way to the NWHL and play in the league was amazing!”
Resuming her career in Kazakhstan following the experience of wearing Riveters colors, the sense of homecoming provided an essential theme. With an enterprising spirit, the passion has never wavered on or off the ice for Kartanbay. Of note, a display of entrepreneurial drive resulted in her becoming the proprietor of Omnomnom Eco Bakery, offering sugar and gluten-free cookies.
As the 2021-22 season saw Kartanbay compete for Tomiris Astana, she previously played for the club in 2017-18. Amassing a solid 24 points in only 12 games played, she finished third in team scoring, trailing Daria Moldabai (25 points) and Olga Shirokova (48 points), an alum of Tornado Dmitrov, in the club’s scoring race. Worth noting, Tomiris Astana finished second overall in the league standings, while Aisulu Almaty finished first.
Coincidentally, Kartanbay’s lone season with Almaty, recording seven appearances in 2016-17, provided another unique linkage to the CWHL. Among her teammates that season were former Calgary Inferno skaters Chelsea Purcell (the first team captain in franchise history) and Karolina Urban.
Undoubtedly, Kartanbay is also taking on a unique element of celebrity. Recognized in 2021 among the 100 New Faces of Kazakhstan, an honored place on the Forbes Kazakhstan 30 under 30 added another element of relevance. Simultaneously, each honor raises awareness of women’s ice hockey.
Helping transform the nation’s sporting zeitgeist, augmenting the conversation about the role women in sport can hold in her homeland, the key foundation always remains an enjoyment of the game. With the rink becoming a hub for friendship and encouragement, the potential to expand the sport for women is attributed to Kartanbay’s admirable efforts, enabling dreams to flourish.
“I play at home and that is the sweetest part. My family and my friends are here. I am also working on my first Women’s Hockey Academy in Kazakhstan. We opened up in July 2021. Right now, we have so many successes, which is my favorite part. Several are paying little attention to women’s sports and young skill players. I feel that we are getting a chance to move forward and it is amazing.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”