Shai Buium came by hockey the way so many other kids did - from an older relative. In the case of the Sioux City Musketeers defenseman and 2021 NHL draft prospect, it happened in California.
"My cousin lived down the road from us in San Diego, where I grew up," Buium said. "He played hockey and when I was six, they would take me to his games and I fell in love with it. I asked my mom if I could play and she was hesitant, but she said OK and I started from there."
Kids from California have been excelling in hockey for years now - call it the Gretzky Effect - but Buium's lineage gets even more interesting if you go back further. His parents are both from Israel; they married after completing their mandated military time there and moved to Los Angeles, where Buium's dad got into the HVAC business, eventually starting his own company. So Buium's parents weren't just hesitant about hockey - they barely knew anything about the sport.
But the call of the ice was strong for the Buium kids and now all three have carved paths in the game. Ben, the oldest brother, got the ball rolling and his journey actually played a big role in Shai's development at the famed Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school in Minnesota.
"My brother wanted to go there and went to try out - and everyone knows about Shattuck and how great it is," Buium said. "So when he made it, they said I could come as well. I had never even visited or anything, but I knew it would be a good place for me. I went and I never looked back."
As it turns out, Shattuck wasn't a fit for Ben and he left after about a month (he now plays in the USPHL for the Skipjacks Hockey Club in Pennsylvania), but Shai found his home in Minnesota.
"I just like how everyone there wants to get better," Buium said. "And they provide you with those tools; the coaching, ice time, workouts - all of it is included, which is really nice."
By his third season at Shattuck, Buium was leading the U16 squad in blueline scoring. He had also caught the attention of Sioux City, which had taken Buium in the USHL draft the previous summer and put him into three games with the Musketeers to see how he'd fare. This season, Buium played 17 games for Shattuck but has since joined the Musketeers full-time and made quite the impression.
"He's attribute-loaded as far as being long," said Sioux City coach and director of hockey ops Luke Strand. "He skates well and he has heavy offensive awareness. At the same time, there's a youthfulness - his body's not complete yet. The things he's been able to do jumping into a league mid-stream has been impressive."
Buium's 6-foot-3, 214-pound frame is indeed intriguing, which is why NHL scouts have been watching his game with enthusiasm this season. The California kid is a potential second-rounder for the 2021 draft thanks to the upside in his game: despite still being a bit raw, Buium ranks second in blueline scoring on Sioux City with 17 points in 35 games, just two points behind New Jersey Devils draft pick Ethan Edwards.
And the competition in the USHL this year is tougher than ever, as Strand points out: not only do you have the usual cohort of talent, but also WHLers such as Matt Savoie and Cole Sillinger, NCAA players-in-waiting such as Habs pick Sean Farrell, and a cohort of NCAA players who came back due to cancelled seasons, such as Henry Thrun, Austin Wong and Jack Malone.
"You can't just have an average game and expect it to go good for you," Strand said. "That's something Shai has handled very well - that pressure of being prepared every day."
The coach believes Buium's skating still has another gear to come and it will once his body matures. But Strand sees Buium as an all-situations player who will be able to eat minutes as he progresses.
As for the next step after Sioux City, Buium is committed to the University of Denver, where he will join the Pioneers either next year or the year after that.
"It's a lot like Shattuck - it felt like home when I visited," he said. "And I really like the coaching staff, they seem to know what they're doing."
In the meantime, the Buium name will continue to live on at Shattuck thanks to the youngest brother, Zeev. A late 2005 birthday, Zeev is also a defenseman, though in a different mould from his siblings. Shai is proud of his kid brother and though Covid limited their interactions on the Shattuck campus this season, it was cool for him to watch Zeev's games.
"I think he's a great player; he has a bright, bright future," Buium said. "He's really good defensively and super-skilled. Super-shifty, agile and quick."
California kids who are feelin' Minnesota - not a bad hockey origin story.