Shai Buium Leads University of Denver to ‘Frozen Four’

Shai Buium Leads University of Denver to ‘Frozen Four’

Buium referred to the experience as “probably the best I’ve ever had playing hockey.”

In 2009, Miri Buium was, to put it mildly, nonplussed when her six-year-old son Shai expressed interest in playing ice hockey. It hadn’t even been a decade since the family had emigrated from Israel to San Diego, Calif.

Her husband, Iulian, a former member of the Israeli armed forces, was working long hours trying to establish an HVAC company while the family navigated an unfamiliar American culture. And Miri, a former Israeli professional basketball player, knew hardly anything about hockey — except for the sport’s violent nature and that Shai, as a child of Israeli immigrants living in San Diego, already had two strikes against him.

On April 7, Shai Buium helped the University of Denver pull off a historic upset against the Michigan Wolverines in front of a packed crowd at TD Garden.

Eventually, though, Miri and Iulian acquiesced to their son’s demands, and thus began a most improbable hockey success story (perhaps the sport’s version of “Cool Runnings”), one that — at least for the time being — culminated in the now 19-year-old Shai helping the University of Denver Pioneers win their ninth NCAA Division I men’s hockey championship earlier this month in Boston.

Two nights after Denver upset the heavily-favored Michigan Wolverines (the team had seven first-round picks, including New Jersey Devils top prospect Luke Hughes, who also represents the Jewish community) in the semifinals of the Frozen Four, Buium assisted on teammate Mike Benning’s go-ahead third-period goal in Denver’s come-from-behind 5-1 title game win over the Minnesota State Mavericks.

Speaking to the Atlanta Jewish Times during the Frozen Four weekend, Buium referred to the experience as “probably the best I’ve ever had playing hockey.”
Saturday night’s runaway win over the Mavericks, in which Buium and the Pioneers reeled off five unanswered goals to erase a 1-0 deficit, was an afterthought of sorts, following their thrilling and highly unexpected 3-2 overtime triumph over a star-studded Michigan team that had recently been profiled in the New York Times and was all the rage in the college hockey world.

“Everyone talks about Michigan and how they were so good,” says the 6’3” defenseman, who was selected thirty-sixth overall by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2021 NHL Draft but has no intention of leaving school just yet (Detroit will retain his rights for as long as he is in school). “We knew we were just as good or better. We were really excited to play that game.”

Miri and Iulian were among the thousands of Denver students, fans and boosters on hand at Boston’s TD Garden to watch Shai and the Pioneers capture the school’s ninth NCAA championship, tied for most all-time with, coincidentally, Michigan. Now that he’s earned a full scholarship to the University of Denver and stands to make millions in the NHL, Buium’s parents are fully behind their son’s hockey dreams.

The reservations they had during the nascent days of Shai’s hockey career came from watching Shai’s cousin play — which is how Shai first got hooked — and being put off by the constant barrage of jarring hits. After all, in Miri’s basketball world, aggressive contact is penalized via called fouls while a hard check in hockey is glorified. Neither parent knew how to skate and rink time in sunny San Diego was hard to come by, not to mention exorbitantly expensive. Why couldn’t he just stick with basketball and follow in his mom’s footsteps?

“We played basketball in the street, me and my brothers,” says Shai. “We never really played it seriously.”

But he played hockey seriously. By the time Shai was an adolescent, Miri and Iulian were driving back and forth from San Diego to Los Angeles five times per week so that he could play for the L.A. Junior Kings, a team that won a handful of junior national championships and offered exposure to scouts nationwide.

Soon thereafter, as a young teen, Buium was nationally ranked and committed to Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota, an elite prep school for budding hockey players. His high school career didn’t exactly get off to an auspicious start, however.

During his freshman year, Buium fell into the boards awkwardly during an early season practice, shattering his ankle and having to miss the entirety of the season.
“I think that [ankle injury] really just speaks to his character and resolve and just maturity,” says Ben Umhoefer, the Director of Hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, who not only coached Shai but also his younger and older brothers, each an accomplished hockey player in his own right. “I know that was a tough thing for him at a tough time with a lot of change happening in his life. The way he handled that was so impressive.”

By his junior year, Shai grew to 6’3” and was dazzling both college and pro scouts with his diverse skill set and remarkable on-ice IQ. When COVID jeopardized the Shattuck-St. Mary’s season the following winter, Shai left the boarding school to join the Sioux City Musketeers of the United States Hockey League (otherwise known as the USHL, the top junior ice hockey league in America), for which he recorded 26 points in 50 games while gearing up for his collegiate career in Denver.

“His ability to adapt to a new environment and fit in is really an unbelievable trait of his,” says Sioux City head coach Luke Strand. “I don’t think he loses any of that [cultural] pride but at the same time he doesn’t need to be the story either.”

Indeed, there were not many Israeli Americans skating alongside Shai in the upper Midwest. The same has been true at Denver, where, of course, he recently captured the national spotlight after helping the Pioneers win another NCAA title.

“I don’t really think about that [representing Israel in the Frozen Four] too much,” says Buium. “It’s important to represent your culture and where you come from, but I don’t like to think about it too much. I just go out there and be myself.”

Doing so has drawn gushing praise from former coaches.

“I would be shocked if you talked to somebody who played with Shai who didn’t like him or care about him as a teammate,” says Umhoefer. “He was extremely well liked by his teammates, by his coaches, by his teachers, by everyone in the community. He’s such a fun, upbeat, positive kid.”

Adds Strand: “Shai’s going to be a favorite teammate pretty quick. He cares about other people as much as he cares about himself. It stands out. He definitely identifies with being a great person.”

And now, Buium will always be associated with a national championship.

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