Ivan Kulbakov didn’t exactly grow up in a hockey hot bed. He hails from Belarus, and his home country has produced just 12 NHL players. There are currently only three players in the AHL who hail from the country of 9.5 million people. For the 22-year-old Comets goalie, his goal is simple: to play hockey and to do so at the highest level.
Getting to this point in his career has required constantly stepping out of his comfort zone and undertaking a wealth of new experiences.
He came to North America for the first time at the age of 19 when he appeared in one season with the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL. It was his first exposure to American culture… and the English language. Kulbakov had grown up speaking Russian, and only Russian, his entire life.
“I go for billet family, and (I know) just nothing,” Kulbakov said, smiling. “One word. ‘Hello…. and thank you.’”
It didn’t take him too long to catch on, as Kulbakov can understand the language quite well just two years later. He does, however, sometimes struggle converting his thoughts to speech.
“I understand when fans talk and when coach talk(s) and what guys say in locker room. For me it’s sometimes hard to speak.”
Like a lot of people who learn English, he occasionally uses television to learn. It might only help with his hockey terminology though, as he is a junkie for the game and can’t get enough of it.
“I watch (television),” he said. “The NHL show.”
Though his life is consumed by hockey, he grew up active and playing plenty of sports. It’s cold in Belarus, with a climate very similar to Utica, but the summer time lent itself to Kulbakov enjoying some other hobbies.
“I played soccer in the summer for fun. I love soccer,” Kulbakov said. “I play anything (during) summer. Big tennis, small tennis, I like anything.”
When realizing the confusion over “small tennis,” he quickly followed up with a chuckle: “Ping pong, ping pong. Sorry, sorry, sorry.”
Kulbakov has enjoyed being thrust into the spotlight in Utica, earning loads of playing time after injuries and call-ups have turned him into the team’s starting netminder. There is one thing that stands out over all others when it comes to what he enjoys in Utica.
“My bed,” he said, laughing uncontrollably. “It’s a joke, I’m not serious,” he added.
“Utica really is good. I like the fans. Probably best fans in AHL. Very good atmosphere for every game. At home, oh my god, it’s the best atmosphere. For players, for team, for everybody. Good time.”
Even though he is enjoying the ride, he remains thousands of miles from home. He is young and still figuring out the processes of the pro game, and sometimes that leads to a bit of homesickness. However, there is one thing that continues to push him, and that’s the true, genuine, unadulterated love for his line of work.
“Every day I speak to my family. Dad, mom, and my girlfriend. Sometimes I miss home, but this is my job. I love my job. I’m happy to play hockey. It’s my life.”