Meet Zeev Buium, who could be the NHL’s next Jewish superstar

As Zeev Buium prepared to take the ice with the No. 4-ranked University of Denver last fall, he had the jitters expected of any 17-year-old in his first Division I game.

But he also had something else on his mind: The Pioneers’ first game fell on Oct. 7 — and Buium’s parents and much of his family are Israeli. “Waking up that morning wasn’t easy,” Buium told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency; throughout the day, text messages from his family, and news of Hamas’ surprise attack, trickled in.

“We kind of freaked out right away and my mom called us immediately,” Buium, now 18, said of himself and his older brother, Shai, who also played hockey for Denver. “She was like, ‘Hey, like this is what’s going on. We don’t know everything, but Israel was attacked, a lot of people were killed and injured or taken for hostage.’”

On the other end of the line, their mother Miriam, who lives in San Diego, tried to be circumspect. She knew they had an important match that night — “It’s their first game together, and I didn’t want it to stress them out too much,” she said — and tried to reinforce one message: That their loved ones were OK.

That knowledge, Buium said, helped him as he laced up for the 7 p.m. game.

“We knew the major details, but the biggest thing was she said she’s pretty sure all our family is safe and healthy,” he said. “So that was the biggest thing for us, making sure that the people we love are safe.”

As the war and season progressed, Buium tried to stay updated on the news from Israel while contributing to his team, which won the national championship in April. Now, he’s hoping to give his Israeli family something else to celebrate during a tough time: He’s slated to be picked in the top 10 in Friday’s NHL Entry Draft.

His entire family, including eight relatives from Israel, have already arrived in Las Vegas, where the draft will be held. They will be with him at The Sphere when his name is called.

“I think the biggest thing for me is seeing our family come over from Israel to Vegas to be with me and be with the rest of my family,” said Buium (pronounced “Boo-y-YUM,” according to his college bio). “I couldn’t thank them enough for having made all the sacrifices they’ve made, what they’ve gone through to make a sacrifice to come to the States and be with me.”

Buium’s path to becoming a top NHL draft pick ran through the southern Israeli coastal city of Ashdod, where his parents came from, to San Diego, where they moved in 1999, before he was born. When they arrived in the United States, he said, they had “no idea” what hockey was.

“I think my mom’s quote-unquote words were, ‘over my dead body,’ to Shai when he wanted to play,” Zeev recalled. “It definitely wasn’t in their book, and they definitely weren’t thinking that we were going to be playing, so it took a lot of convincing.”

Miriam, who played professional basketball in Israel, said she knew nothing about hockey until her cousin invited the family to their child’s youth hockey tournament. It was the entire Buium family’s first introduction to the sport, which barely registers in Israel’s Mediterranean climate. “I saw the game and I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Miriam Buium recalled.

From there, Miriam and her husband, who goes by Iuli, got a crash course in hockey as their three sons all fell in love with the sport. It became a full-time job for Miriam, who spent many days managing the logistics of school and hockey obligations for her sons from 6 a.m. through midnight.

Shai, Ben and Zeev Buium

L-R: Shai, Ben and Zeev Buium at the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Israel. Ben played for Team USA’s gold medal-winning hockey team. (Courtesy of Miriam Buium)

The sport even influenced where the Buiums lived. At one point, all three kids played in a youth hockey program based in El Segundo in Los Angeles, which meant the family would drive two-plus hours to and from practices and games several times each week, with the boys doing homework and eating meals in the car. Eventually the commute was too much, so they moved an hour closer to L.A.

“When people told me, ‘You’re crazy, you live in San Diego, you’re going all the way to El Segundo and L.A., blah, blah, blah,’ I said, ‘Well, I used to play,’” Miriam Buium recounted. “I know what it takes and if my kids want to put the effort in, I will be there for them. I will help them as much as I can.”

Shai Buium is grateful for his parents’ support — and says it taught him what, in their eyes, it means to be Israeli.

“I think our Israeli parents raised us kind of how you would be raised in Israel,” Shai Buium told JTA. “Hard work, that’s how you get what you want to succeed. You have to work really hard. Nothing comes easy, and that’s just kind of been our mindset our whole lives.”

Zeev Buium also connects with his Israeli identity so much that he wears it on his sleeve — literally. The defenseman has a tattoo on his left forearm that lists the Hebrew calendar dates of his three major championship wins: the 2023 World U18 Championships, the 2024 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships and this year’s NCAA title.

“All the guys get tattoos, and I thought, I have something a little bit more special I can do,” Buium said. “I thought with the Hebrew lettering, it’s got a lot more meaning to it than just regular writing or Roman numerals… I obviously love being Jewish, love everything about it, so I’m not afraid to show it off.”

Buium also said his family’s Israeli background is central to his Jewish identity and that he “loved every second of it, all the holidays… We really knew what it meant to be Jewish.” Being the rare hockey player with Israeli parents, he said, also feels special.

“Doing what we’re doing with hockey, it’s pretty unique and special for us to show the Jewish community that it doesn’t matter what your culture is, where you’re from, or who you are, you can do whatever you want,” Buium added.

That sense of pride hasn’t changed for the family since Oct. 7, Miriam said.

“I always tell them, stand high, heads up,” she said. “Be proud of who you are. And they know that, and they never for a moment took their chai or Star of David off them.”

Now, the Buium brothers are standing out not just for their identity but for their ability. Shai was drafted 36th overall by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2021 draft and in April signed a three-year entry-level contract that will begin this coming fall. (Their older brother Ben, 23, also played hockey but did not pursue the sport professionally.)

Buium is expected to go even higher in Friday’s draft after a freshman season filled with accolades, including being named the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s Rookie of the Year and Offensive Defenseman of the Year. He is ranked by ESPN as the No. 6 prospect entering the draft.

When Buium makes the jump to the NHL (he can keep playing in college under the draft’s rules) he will join a growing roster of Jewish players, from Edmonton Oilers star Zach Hyman to New York Rangers defender Adam Fox. If he and Shai both make it, they will join Jack, Luke and Quinn Hughes as sets of Jewish brothers who play in the league together. In a recent interview after attending Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals, Buium said he considers Quinn Hughes his NHL role model.

“If I could be another Jewish hockey player in the NHL and pave the way for younger kids that are Jewish and show them it’s possible, then I’d be very happy and it’d be great for me and my family,” he said.

Buium family

L-R: Iuli, Zeev, Ben, Shai and Miriam Buium after a Denver hockey game. (Courtesy of Miriam Buium)

And after a year in which Buium recorded the first 50-point season by a Denver freshman in 40 years, coach David Carle said the young defenseman has earned the hype.

“​​I think it’s a huge honor for him to be regarded like this, and his play has shown that he’s deserving of being drafted as high as he will be,” Carle told reporters last month. “I don’t think there’s a player in the draft that impacts the game, shift to shift, like he does, with how much he’s on the ice.”

Carle added, “Whatever team ends up drafting him is getting a great person first, and an excellent hockey player.”

Shai said his brother has a “winner mentality” and “the highest compete level I’ve seen in a player.”

“I’m not just saying that because he’s my brother,” Shai said. “Seriously, ask anybody on our team, he’s probably got the highest compete level on our team. And obviously just his skill set, his hockey IQ. Everything comes together when it’s gametime.”

This coming season, the brothers will no longer be on the same team (or league), which means they likely won’t be able to celebrate holidays together as they did in Denver. Buium said his demanding hockey schedule — which often features games on Fridays and Saturdays — made it difficult to celebrate Shabbat or get involved in Jewish life on campus, something he’d like to change.

But he said he fasts every year on Yom Kippur and sits out any practices or games that fall on the holiday, a custom that was reinforced by a painful experience Shai had in high school, when he forwent fasting, got on the ice — and broke his ankle.

For Zeev, that was enough of a sign. “We don’t mess with that,” he said.

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