Yet right now, Buium is focused on making his mark on frozen water during USA Hockey’s 2021 World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Michigan. It features 44 American U20 national team candidates on split Blue and White squads facing off against Finland and Sweden’s top hopefuls.
Certainly, this two-way offensive defenceman of Israeli heritage has taken an unusual path en route to getting drafted by his favourite NHL club. But he’s right in his element at USA Hockey Arena.
Asked to describe his early impressions of competing for a roster spot at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton and Red Deer, Buium says: “It’s a lot different, obviously. I mean, you’re playing with such great players, and I’ve never played against different countries before. My highlight so far is just being able to see that I can compete with these players and still be able to play my game.”
The 191-cm, 97-kg blueliner, who has committed to the University of Denver for 2021/22, had four goals and 22 assists in 50 games with the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers last season.
Even though San Diego isn’t renowned as a hockey hotbed, this sport is a small world, and Buium entered the Summer Showcase knowing several other players.
“I grew up playing with Aidan Hreschuk,” Buium says of the Long Beach, California-born defenceman who was drafted in the third round by the Carolina Hurricanes. “My roommate at Denver, for the last five weeks we were there, was Carter Mazur. And Sean Behrens is going there too.”
Buium confesses that he “barely knew what [World Juniors] was” during his formative years in California’s second-largest city. Yet after seeing coach Nate Leaman, leading scorer Trevor Zegras, and top goalie Spencer Knight propel the Stars and Stripes to gold in January, he’s almost as eager to crack the U20 squad as to play for the Wings someday.
“It’d be a dream come true as well. Everyone wants to grow up and play for Team USA, representing your country. It’s a huge honour.”
Miri originally wasn’t that thrilled about Shai – the second-oldest of her three sons – playing hockey when he caught the bug at age 6 from watching his cousin, who lived nearby. The game seemed pretty rough. It wasn’t easy to get ice time in San Diego either. And Shai self-deprecatingly recalls that he was “kind of slow and chubby” as a kid.
Still, Buium stuck with it and got a spot on the San Diego Oilers peewee team before making the leap at age 11 to the Los Angeles Jr. Kings, where he met Hreschuk. Playing for that highly touted team meant making the four-hour round-trip drive to L.A up to five times a week, but it was worth it.
One of the first NHL games he attended in person at age 12 pitted Los Angeles versus Detroit.
“[Long-time NHL agent] Pat Brisson actually brought me down. His son Jordan was on our team. Pat brought me down to where the players walk to the bus. I got a bunch of autographs on my Detroit Red Wings jersey from all the Detroit guys, and then I got a photo with Pavel Datsyuk. And my mom was wearing a Kings jersey, which she got signed by all the Kings players. So that was really cool.”
Not surprisingly, Datsyuk and legendary Detroit defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom remain Buium’s favourite players. Buium still enjoys trying to pull off Datsyuk’s shootout moves. Lidstrom – a Triple Gold Club member with a 2006 Olympic gold medal, a World Championship title, four Stanley Cups, and seven Norris Trophies – made an indelible impression, even though the Swede played his last game when Buium was just nine.
“He’s just really good at defence,” Buium says. “His mental game is all about perfection, trying to perfect the game at all times.”
Buium followed in the footsteps of his older brother Ben to Shattuck-St. Mary’s. The world-renowned Minnesota boarding school’s hockey program has spawned names like Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, Brianna Decker, and Amanda Kessel. Even though Buium’s freshman season was hampered by an ankle injury, he went through a major growth spurt as a junior in 2019/20 and led all Shattuck St-Mary’s 16U AAA defencemen with 57 points in 46 games.
That put the smart, left-shooting rearguard on the radar of Detroit general manager Steve Yzerman and his staff. At this month’s draft, the Wings – who took another towering D-man in Sweden’s Simon Edvinsson sixth overall – traded the 38th and 128th overall picks to the Vegas Golden Knights to make sure they’d nab Buium at #36.
“I got a bunch of texts and calls [after being drafted], and they’re just so happy for me and proud of me,” Buium says. “It’s awesome. Our family’s really close. I’ve been to Israel a bunch of times. Last time was maybe 2017 or 2018. It’s been kind of crazy, especially last year with COVID-19. This year we wanted to go, but the schedule’s packed. When we go, we stay with my grandma in Ashdod. We also go to Tel Aviv a lot. I mean, we have family all over. My grandma had 13 siblings. My grandpa had 13 siblings. So we have a huge family up there.”
In San Diego, he isn’t mobbed by autograph-seekers – yet, anyway. The city is better-known for the San Diego Zoo, the Balboa Park museums, and the craft beer scene than its passion for hockey. That remains true despite solid pre-pandemic attendance for the San Diego Gulls, the AHL affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks, and the presence of black hockey pioneers like Willie O’Ree and Blake Bolden.
However, Buium enjoyed skating last summer with fellow San Diego native Thatcher Demko, the starting goalie of the Vancouver Canucks. And who knows? If Buium can, say, put together a successful World Juniors and help Denver win its ninth NCAA national championship, he could join Demko and Chad Ruhwedel among current San Diego-born NHLers in a few years.
There’s yet another Buium on the horizon: his younger brother Zeev. Just 15, the defenceman has gone through the Jr. Kings and Shattuck St-Mary’s as well, and has committed to the USA Hockey National Team Development Program’s U17 team for next season.
The key to Shai Buium’s own bright future might be his ability to go with the flow, like riding a boogie board on the San Diego waterfront. He’s never lost sight of the joy he first found in hockey as a six-year-old. Fans of USA Hockey and the Wings hope he can bring that zest to the quest for America’s sixth World Junior gold medal and Detroit’s twelfth Stanley Cup.
“I want to play in the NHL and win a Stanley Cup, but I also just have a lot of fun playing the game,” Buium says. “It’s my favourite thing to do.”