“I know I’m not a World Champion or an Olympic Champion. I’m just a player from Kazakhstan who wants to grow in the game. And play at the highest level I can.”
But the 26-year-old is not just any player from Kazakhstan. She started the season with the Metropolitan Riveters in the NWHL, becoming the first woman from her country to sign a pro contract in North America. Now she’s hoping that her story can inspire others to aim high and pursue their dreams in the face of any adversity.
“I’d like to say to any young players, if you’re dreaming about something or you want to play somewhere, you have every opportunity to do it,” she added. “You have to follow your heart, follow your dreams and never, never give up because you’re doing something that you love.”
Kartanbayeva knows this from personal experience. She took up the game relatively late at the age of 13, in a country where men’s hockey has strong roots, but the women’s game is still finding its niche. There were times when she was unable to find an opportunity to play at all, even taking up rugby for a while before the call of the ice put her back on her skates. When a new pro women’s hockey league started in North America in 2015 with the establishment of the NWHL, it seemed remote from the locker room in Astana (now Nur-Sultan) where Bulbul was playing for Tomiris, the women’s team set up by KHL organisation Barys.
“When the league started, I remember talking about it in the locker room with my team-mates and we were saying how it was a cool idea. Back then, it seemed so far away; I didn’t even dream about it, but it stayed in my mind.
“In 2016 and 2017 I was back on the Kazakhstan national team and we played a lot of tournaments: the Universiade in Almaty, the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, the World Championship. After that, I realized I had everything I could achieve in Kazakhstan and I was ready to grow and try to do something bigger.”
A meeting with Sami Jo Small, a three-time Olympian, inspired Kartanbayeva to look across the Atlantic. A connection with Calgary Inferno GM Kristen Hagg brought her to Canada – and into a whole new hockey environment.
“Calgary was the first time I tried out for a pro team. It was a really high level and I was on the ice with Olympic champions, World Champions. These were girls who started playing when they were three or four years old and had more than 20 years’ experience. They asked how long I’d been playing; I said 11 years and they just smiled.
“It was really difficult. In Canada and the USA hockey is more of a contact game, there’s more action, it’s faster. The girls here play like boys. After that experience I had to grow up fast.”
That growing up was not only on the ice. A big setback in the form of visa problems denied Kartanbayeva the chance to play CWHL hockey with the Boston Blades in 2017/18.
“After I couldn’t get a visa to play for Boston, I was close to giving up,” she recalled. “It felt like if I couldn’t play there because of one piece of paper, I didn’t want to play at all.
“But my mom is a really great person. She got me to slow down, reminded me how much I love this game and supported me to get what I needed. She took out loans to pay for my flights and my visa applications – it’s expensive, especially for someone in Kazakhstan – and she did so much to support me. I wake up every day thankful for my mom and all her support.
“All athletes have hard times. Maybe it’s injuries, maybe it’s struggling to perform at your best level. Sometimes you just want to stop it all, but my mom never let me give up on my dreams.”
With Hagg’s support, Kartanbayeva played 2018/19 in the Southern Alberta Women’s Hockey Association and continued her search for a spot in the pro leagues. A solid season with Calgary Coyotes – she was fourth in team scoring with 29 (8+21) points from 19 games, kept her on the radar of the NWHL and the close season gave her time to put in the hard yards towards that dream.
“I was trying out for three teams, the Riveters, the Buffalo Beauts and the Minnesota Whitecaps and I was just waiting for a call to see if there would be any offers,” she added. “Then all at once I had calls from Buffalo and the Riveters, almost at the same time. It was so difficult to choose between them: this was my first time; it was my dream to play in this league and it was tough to make the decision.”
“We have good conversations on the team, my team-mates are really friendly. We’re starting a new team this season. A lot of last year’s players have ended their careers or aren’t playing this year. We only have two or three returning players, we have a new staff, a new head coach. I think we understand each other and there’s a lot of help and support for each other.
“To prepare for this league, I started working in May. Every day I’ve had workouts, ice practice, there’s no time for a rest. Now I’m feeling like I can play here. My team-mates are supporting me, everyone around me is supporting me. They keep pushing me and we believe it’s really going to work out.”
“[The letter from the Minister] was something unbelievable. I never expected anything like that from our government, I never even thought about it. I was really happy to receive it and I greatly appreciate the congratulations and the warm words.”
When asked if she’s now a role model for young players back home, Kartanbayeva laughs. “Hopefully. I’m starting to understand my role, I need to show girls in my country and in other countries like Kazakhstan about the importance of keeping going, keeping up the hard work. Then you can achieve whatever you want.”