The prototypical men’s hockey journey is one highlighted by consistency and support. Players start at a young age and have he opportunity to progress from visible league to more visible league, earning access to the best coaches and opportunities available, and benefitting from a family able to provide the time and means to ensure he’s able to chase his dreams. It’s like an escalator, of sorts, steadily elevating young hopefuls as high as their skill can take them
For Ms. Bulbul Kartanbay, her hockey journey was less like an escalator and more like a gruelling hike up Mount Kilimanjaro.
The 28 year old from Kazakhstan was never pushed to play the game through her youth, instead arbitrarily being assigned to Ice Hockey at 13 after attending a sports school where her preference of playing soccer was unavailable.
She was never encouraged by her family to pursue her dream, with Kartanbay’s parents instead telling her to go to college and get married rather than trying to make it in a “man’s sport.”
And her career could hardly be called consistent, enduring multiple pauses and delays, including a lengthy hiatus from ages 18-21.
Even within her triumphs, Kartanbay found opposition. She was unable to join the Canadian Women’s Hockey League after being drafted by the Boston Blades at age 18 following four separate denials for an American work visa, and injury from a car accident cost her most of her only NWHL season in 2019-20.
Despite these setbacks, Kartanbay always found a way to not only persevere, but succeed. She has become one of the most notable women’s players in Kazakhstan, representing the country twice in the World Junior Cup at ages 16 and 17 as well playing in five World Cups from 2012 through 2019 and two Olympic qualifying tournaments.
Kartanbay’s hockey prowess has taken her from the NWHL’s (now PHF) Metropolitan Riveters to Tomiris Astana of the Kazakh Women’s League, and she’s recently decided to use her stories and skills to help other young women break into the game through the Women’s Hockey Academy in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s first female-focused hockey school.
Kartanbay has represented her country numerous times on the international stage and has played pro hockey in North America.
Kartanbay’s Women’s Hockey Academy is making a huge contribution to building the game overseas, providing an opportunity for young girls where none previously existed.
In Kazakhstan, hockey is primarily considered a sport for men, and even though women are allowed to play, a deficit in organized youth teams, skilled coaches, and available ice (there are only five ice rinks in Kazakhstan’s capital of Nur-Sultan) means that their involvement and development within the sport are often minimized in favor of providing support to the country’s young men in the game.
After returning in 2021, Kartanbay made it her goal to change the sports dynamic in her home country, and give young women both the chance and support in a place that seems content to leave their potential unrealized.
It all started when Kartanbay took part in hosting a charity hockey event for International Women’s Day, and found 12 Kazakh girls willing to participate within a 16-team children’s tournament.
Realizing her ability to grow the game, Kartanbay started the Academy, with her mission immediately earning sympathizers. She was highlighted as one of Kazakhstan’s “100 New Faces” in 2021, and earned the trust and support of the Kazakhstani government after giving a speech to the President of the Kazakhstan Republic.
Kartanbay would later meet with the Mayor of Nur-Sultan and the Kazakhstani Minister of Sports and Culture to discuss support for her initiative.
“They said that they will support me because the president supported me,” she says. “He told them and they did it for me.”
Since then, the success of Kartanbay and the Women’s Hockey Academy has been subjectively outstanding.
Kartanbay was highlighted as one of Kazakhstan’s “100 New Faces” in 2021 for her work in growing the game of hockey.
In our interview, the current Tomiris Astana forward reported that there were only 171 professional female Kazakh players, while her academy was currently developing the skills of 75 young women ages 4-18, cultivating and ensuring the future of women in Kazakhstani hockey.
“What we did with the Women’s Hockey Academy … it’s really amazing,” Kartanbay said.
The Academy hosted open-door days in July of 2021 to allow those interested to see the possibilities of Kartanbay’s vision, and emphasizes the open collaboration she wants to foster within her program.
“My main goal is, first of all, move the national team to the capitol city,” she begins. “And then, involve more young coaches and coaches from other countries like Finland, US, Canada, to teach our players and community how to work.
Bulbul Kartanbay’s initiative and fire to succeed may have started the ball rolling for girls hockey in Kazakhstan, but it is still an uphill battle.
Hockey is growing every day, every second. It’s new programs, new games, going faster. I also want to travel … there’s a lot of experience to exchange.”
Kartanbay’s passion for both the game and her ability to grow it are evident as she speaks. Her goals of creating a network to advance hockey within the country of Kazakhstan, especially for women, is not only noble, but revolutionary.
Within a country that has not only failed to foster women in hockey, but actively discouraged them from participating, Bulbul Kartanbay’s initiative and fire to succeed have the power to change countless lives around her, providing an escalator to those who were never even shown the stairs.
With Astana, Kartanbay currently wears #99, made most famous by Wayne Gretzky. Some may call it sacrosanct, but it’s easy to see comparisons between the two if one looks close enough.
Like Gretzky, Kartanbay is transforming and growing the game of hockey. The work she does through her Women’s Hockey Academy will have a positive impact not just on the girls she trains today, but on women in the game for generations to come in Kazakhstan.