The rise of any empire—whether on the world stage, or in hockey—is hardly a comfortable ascent. Perhaps no one understands this better than Victor Bartley, an NHL veteran defenseman who has spent the last two seasons with Kunlun Red Star as they establish their foothold in China. A former Nashville Predator and Montreal Canadien, Bartley, 31, could never have imagined that his career would one day bring him 8,500 kilometers from Western Canada to Eastern China. A town of less than 83,000, Maple Ridge, British Columbia has supplied three members of Kunlun’s roster this season: Bartley, captain Brandon Yip and enforcer Garet Hunt.
Despite the inevitable turbulence as Kunlun reaches altitude—both in the KHL and in China itself—Bartley has proven to be a long-term investment for a locker room with high turnover. This mindset is hardly limited to his career on the ice; Bartley, a real estate investor and CEO, helps his clients to maximize their incomes for the long-term, and is passionate about improving financial literacy among his fellow athletes.
Sitting in traffic en route to Beijing’s Shougang Arena, it is impossible to miss the pagodas of the Forbidden City glowing crimson against the overcast sky. This improbable home for both Bartley, and hockey in general, has obstacles to sort—but the path is an adventure, one that very few players in the KHL or the NHL will ever be able to fathom. Victor Bartley is not simply playing a game, he is building a legacy—one that could shake the hockey world forever as China prepares to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, and one that could etch his name in history.
I caught up with Victor after morning skate in Beijing, and we touched on all of his roles this year—from KRS defenseman, to CEO, to new father.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Growing up, could you ever have imagined that one day you would be playing hockey in China?
Victor Bartley (VB): Not in a million years. I didn’t even know if there was hockey in China at the time, but look where we are twenty years later. Me, Yipper, Huntsy—all playing on the same team, all from the same small hometown of Maple Ridge [British Columbia].
GK: And all three of you share Chinese heritage, but had never been to mainland China before signing with Kunlun.
VB: No — I had been to Taiwan as my family is from there, back when I was 2 and 3 years old. Ever since then, I hadn’t been back since last year.
GK: There is an unfortunate lack of ethnic diversity in hockey. Did you grow up playing alongside other kids of Chinese heritage?
VB: No, not really. There were only, to my best knowledge, five or six other guys and that actually includes Garet Hunt, his brother Trevor, Brandon Yip and my brother [Mitch] who played in the Western Hockey League. It’s funny, he and Yipper were actually best friends growing up. It’s a small world how we all came back together, and suddenly we are all in China playing hockey. It’s kindof the weirdest thing ever.
GK: There has been a lot of turnover in this locker room, but you have become one of the mainstays. You’ve seen not only the growth of Kunlun, but also hockey’s development in China. Are there any major differences between day one and now?
VB: Overall, they are still trying to work out the kinks and bugs of playing hockey in China. As the sport is new to this region, things are still trying to be done properly at the arena here and with the scheduling. But it has been getting better, and we have brought in some great players. We are starting to bring in the right management and coaches to get to the point where we all know Kunlun can be. It’s on the way right now.
GK: What has been your experience in the three different cities that Kunlun has called home—Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen?
VB: They’re all great cities—I mean, Shenzhen was beautiful. Shanghai was incredible, as you know. Beijing is a little busier, but they all offer their individual great parts.
Right now, for us, we get to go see the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, Shanghai, The Bund…all of those great sights that you wouldn’t get to see if you didn’t play for a team like Kunlun. With all of our travel as well, it is just an added bonus.
GK: Do you find that Chinese fans are conquering hockey? I remember some early instances of cheering no matter which net the puck landed in…
VB: For sure. In Shanghai, we didn’t have much of a fan base because that was a temporary situation. Being here, we run into people who are even coming to practice. Our games are being filled up more. Of course, people are mainly taking photos of what’s going on—but it’s nice to see that. The culture is really starting to come around.
We’ve done a few [community] appearances, but nothing too crazy yet. With our travel, we are only in town for a few days here and there. When we are in Beijing, we do take the opportunity to get out there.
GK: Let’s talk a bit about your transition to the KHL. I find it interesting to watch North American defensemen play on the larger ice surfaces. How has your game had to evolve?
VB: When we are on this Beijing ice, [laughs] it’s double-double Olympic-sized or something like that! You have a bit more time out there, but it also forces you to skate a lot more, get up on your gap a lot more—especially when you’re playing the big teams that have a lot of speed. It’s definitely tougher overall, but you do have more decision-making time.
Sometimes it’s tough when you’re switching teams like Vladivostok where their ice is the size of a pond out there. You’re basically touching all ten players at one time. Then you come here and you’ve got 400 feet of ice to work with, it feels like. It’s definitely a transition night-to-night, but that’s just being a pro. You’ve got to change, react to your situation and your surroundings—it just comes with the game.
GK: How would you compare the level of physicality? Has your game gotten any less physical in the K?
VB: I play a pretty physical game overall, and that’s something I take pride in. It has been great—nothing really changes for me. It’s still the same: guys still go to the front of the net, guys are still going to come around the net with their head down, or cross the blue line with their head down. My game stays the same.
GK: Kunlun’s powerplay has looked progressively better—especially during the last Avangard game. What changes have you implemented?
VB: We’ve stuck with the same core ten players, unless a player is out with an injury. That’s what we’ve been trying to go with. Ever since the start of the year, we said these ten guys are going to stick for a month straight, see how they go. If one guy is not clicking, we might pull him off. But they’ve done a good job of trying to stick with the same lines so that we can create some chemistry and create those patterns that we’re used to so that guys can be successful.
GK: What has been the team’s best game this season?
VB: There’s been a couple. Our first game against Avangard this past weekend—we lost it in a shootout, but we played a complete game. They didn’t get any offensive zone time, we had more chances, more shots, more hits, more takeaways. But sometimes it’s just how it plays out—you just don’t win those kinds of games. And there are games you win when you shouldn’t. That’s just the hockey gods some nights!
GK: If you look across Kunlun’s wins and losses, the goal differential is very small. Does it make your job that much harder to protect the narrow leads?
VB: Yeah, overall. I think that if we keep the teams to two goals or less every single night, we are doing our job in the back. Our job is to get the puck out of the net, let the goalie see the puck—and if we can chip in offensively, great. We do need to do a better job of chipping in offensively, of course, as the goals aren’t coming as easy to us right now. That’s just something overall where we have to bear down more.
GK: There are two things that have changed dramatically since last season: coaching staff and goaltending. Let’s start with the latter.
VB: What can you say about Jeremy Smith and Simon Hrubec? They’ve been an unbelievable 1-2 tandem. You can’t honestly say who’s been better than the other, because even if one guy gets a shutout one night, the next goalie is going in the other night because they both play so well together.
They are, without a doubt, the best 1-2 punch in the league. They’re allowing us to be more creative on the offensive blue line, our game pattern of diving through the middle, going down the wall because we know those guys are back there to make the big saves when we need them.
GK: What about the coaching transition from Jussi Tapola to Curt Fraser?
VB: We definitely needed a change when we got Curt Fraser to come in with Steve Kasper. They’ve been awesome so far—the transition’s been great. Having coaches that understand the North American style and are willing to work with players for the betterment of the team is always great. We just didn’t see that with Jussi. I think Curt has done a great job, Kasper and Kovalev as well, of getting us ready for every game. We’re going to overtime versus top teams in the league for a reason. Like you said, the games aren’t blowouts every night. They’re not 5-1, 6-1. We are losing 3-2 in overtime or a shootout—so it proves we can play with the top teams in the league.
It’s a “work smart, work hard” mentality that we have here now; we’re not just running around for no reason. There’s structure to what we are doing, versus going 100 miles per hour for no reason.
GK: Even though you have never played on a Russian squad or under a Russian coach, what are some of the differences you’ve noticed about their style or hockey culture?
VB: You don’t really hear a lot out there, but from [the Russians], they’re always going to do a lot of swinging, a lot of cutbacks. You really have to be ready for that second wave of guys coming at you. Whereas with our team, you are going to hear guys talking the whole night long, especially if you’re in this building [Shougang Arena]—it’s quiet here. You hear every single thing that’s being said on the ice at any given time.
GK: On a more personal note, you recently became a father! I can imagine that being separated from your daughter is difficult during the season.
VB: It has definitely been tough, but I’ve got a really strong partner in life. I think Kirsten’s done an amazing job raising Blake pretty much on her own back home. But thank god for FaceTime and [Kirsten] being able to call me the second I wake up and before I go to bed every night just so I can see Blake. They’re both healthy, they’re both happy—so there’s not much else you can ask for.
GK: Has your family been out to visit you yet?
VB: They went to Shenzhen and were supposed to come to Beijing this week, but she got bronchitis. They couldn’t risk traveling, so they will come out early January now.
GK: In addition to being a partner in life, I understand Kirsten is an integral part of your real estate business too. Tell me a little about where the idea originated.
VB: It all started when I began doing rental real estate on my own—I started doing long-term rentals and seeing how the market was in Nashville, and then we started jumping into Airbnb a little more. Often teammates would say, “What do you guys make on your returns?” And they’d say 4-6% each year. I was hitting 8% all the way to 22% per year, and guys starting taking notice and asking how I was doing it. One guy actually told me, “You need to make a business out of this.” So I turned it into Sixty Four Investments, and since then, I have been helping athletes across multiple sports achieve financial freedom through rental real estate.
GK: Athlete financial literacy is a huge issue. I read once that 60% of NBA players go bankrupt within five years of retirement. Have you had any proud moments watching teammates and friends become better investors?
VB: I would say my teammate Luke Lockhart is a good example. Last year, Luke, myself, Josh Nicholls, Blake Parlett, Taylor Beck—we would all talk about how I [invest]. I told them what to read, what podcasts to listen to, and Luke was very unfamiliar with the whole process last year—what rental real estate was, how it works. Now he’s giving advice to other players on how to do things properly.
It’s just good to see that people are taking the proper steps to make sure they’re not going to be one of those horror stories you hear about athletes going broke. By doing so, he’s secured his future by investing with assets that will also pay him on the side, other than just his hockey income. If you only have one income in life, you’re only one step away from poverty.
GK: Okay, now you have to tell the rest of us what you’re listening to…especially on those long KHL road trips.
VB: I listen to The WealthAbility Show with Tom Wheelwright on podcast—also Clayton Morris, Earn Your Leisure, Grant Cardone…and Spittin’ Chiclets, of course!