Devin Setoguchi rises from rock bottom to earn another shot at the NHL
Devin Setoguchi rises from rock bottom to earn another shot at the NHL
With his career in a tailspin, Devin Setoguchi turned to alcohol to ease his depression. He’s now fit and sober, hoping for another chance at the NHL dream he drank away.
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the upcoming season preview issue. On Wednesday, Setoguchi signed a PTO with the Los Angeles Kings.)
Glens Falls, N.Y., likes to consider itself “Hometown, USA,” a tag hung on it by Look magazine in 1944 for typifying post-WWII America. It has a long minor league hockey history, and for the 2014-15 season it served as temporary home of the Adirondack Flames, Calgary’s AHL affiliate. But after one year, Calgary moved the team to Stockton, Calif., a 90-minute drive from where Devin Setoguchi began his NHL career as a highly touted first-round pick of the San Jose Sharks nearly a decade ago.
Setoguchi spent most of that 2014-15 season in Glens Falls, but it never felt anything remotely like home. After Calgary demoted Setoguchi to the AHL in November 2014, an already serious drinking problem got worse. In fact, he said he can’t remember going more than a day without a drink during his entire time there.
Midway through the season, Setoguchi sustained a hernia injury. He had surgery in St. Louis and then flew back to Glens Falls to begin the healing process. It was there, alone in an isolated town of 14,000 and unable to play, he turned to Irish whiskey as his drink of choice after walking into a local bar. “I saw this guy, he was like 65 years old, and he’s there just drinking Jameson on the rocks and I was there by myself drinking Bud Light,” Setoguchi said. “I drank about six of them, and I’m watching this guy drink Jameson on the rocks, doubles. And he’s just slamming them down.” Curious, Setoguchi started a conversation. “He’s like, ‘I’m retired, my wife passed a few years back. I just come in here,’ ” Setoguchi said. “So I sat with him and drank Jameson until they had no more left.”
The next day, Setoguchi scoured four liquor stores in search of Jameson. That’s when he began polishing off an entire 26-ounce bottle each morning. Eventually, that escalated into two every day. He knows how stupid it all sounds now, but at the time, the goal was to “mess me up faster,” and whiskey accomplished that better than beer.
It all caught up to him April 1, 2015. Back in St. Louis, two and a half months after his surgery for a follow-up medical exam, he got sick. His stomach started to burn and he was coughing up blood – a result, he later learned, of a stomach ulcer and liver problems he had developed from all the drinking. Despite swearing off booze earlier that day, Setoguchi was shaking so badly on the way to the airport that he headed straight to the bar. “I ordered a double Jameson and boom, shot it back, had another one, shot it back,” Setoguchi said. “I sat there for an hour until the floodgates opened and I started bawling. I just sat there and I cried and I cried and I cried. The bartender said, ‘Are you OK?’ And I’m like, ‘No, but keep pouring me drinks.’ ”
His flight out of St. Louis departed without him.
Later that day, Setoguchi called Dr. Brian Shaw, co-founder of the substance abuse program endorsed by the league and the NHL Players Association. Setoguchi said Shaw told him he had to continue to drink until he got into rehab or the alcohol withdrawal could kill him. Four days after that, Setoguchi arrived at a rehab center in the hills of Malibu, just outside Los Angeles and down the coast from San Jose where he lives now – sober for more than a year and hoping for one last shot at resurrecting his NHL career.
"I just sat there and I cried and I cried and I cried. The bartender said, ‘Are you OK?’ And I’m like, ‘No, but keep pouring me drinks.’"
In 2005, the Sharks wanted Setoguchi so badly, they moved up four spots in the draft to take him with the eighth overall pick, ahead of players like Anze Kopitar, T.J. Oshie and James Neal. After two more years of junior, Setoguchi arrived in San Jose carrying an uncommon swagger as a rookie. “Devin’s Devin,” said longtime friend Kris Versteeg, another ex-NHL forward. “He hides his insecurity with who he is. Some people might think he’s cocky or arrogant. The thing with Devin is people don’t really know how big his heart is and how much he does care because they only see the outer shell.”
With the Sharks, Setoguchi eventually earned a spot on the top line with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, scoring a career-high 31 goals in 2008-09 as a sophomore. Two years later, he was a key component of the Sharks’ run to the 2011 Western Conference final, scoring Game 3 overtime winners against Los Angeles and Detroit (including a hat trick against the Wings) along the way.
Yet after cracking the 30-goal mark, Setoguchi dipped to 20 and 22 the following two seasons. Reflecting back, he said he became complacent and didn’t factor in the role his setting played in his success. Able to drink and still score 20 goals, he lost track of the bigger picture. “If I didn’t drink, maybe I’d have had 30 – that was the side I didn’t see,” Setoguchi said. “Maybe I’d have had 60 points and signed a big deal like Bobby Ryan. I was seeing things one way. I was happy with where I was at.”
Setoguchi’s drinking started innocently enough. As a teenager from Taber, Alta., he would indulge socially without ill effects during his years as a junior star in the WHL. “When you’re young, you’re 18 or 19, and you go out and party during the summertime and you have your drinks and you hang out with your buddies,” said Versteeg, who grew up 33 miles from Setoguchi’s hometown. “He wasn’t doing anything dangerous or being dangerous to people. He was just like anybody else.”
When Setoguchi arrived in San Jose, he became close friends with Torrey Mitchell. The two reached the NHL at the same time, lived together and partied together. On one night in 2009, as detailed in then-teammate Jeremy Roenick’s 2012 autobiography, J.R., Setoguchi and Mitchell showed up naked and giggling on Roenick’s front porch at 3 a.m. Both players can smile about the incident now, though Mitchell emphasized it happened after the playoffs not during the season. “When you’re that young, it’s college mode,” Mitchell said. “But there was never a point where I thought, ‘Hmm, I think ‘Seto’ has another level here.’ ”
One day before the 2011 draft, San Jose GM Doug Wilson announced Setoguchi had signed a three-year, $9-million contract extension. As a pending restricted free agent, Setoguchi could have held out for more money, but he was happy in San Jose, playing on a winning team with Thornton and Marleau, and he had just met his future wife.
The next day, Setoguchi was traded to the Minnesota Wild in a deal that brought Brent Burns to San Jose. Wilson said the trade came together on draft day and that he didn’t know Setoguchi would be going to the Wild when the new contract was signed. “I just had a lot of resentment toward that trade,” Setoguchi said. “I had a tough time cutting the cord a bit. I just wish it would’ve happened differently, but that’s what business is…I talk to (Wilson) in the summertime when I see him and it’s ‘Look how it worked out. Burnzie should have won the Norris this year. I was in Switzerland last year.’ That’s just kind of the way it goes.”
Statistically, Setoguchi’s play with the Wild was consistent with his final two seasons in San Jose. He was still considered a streaky right winger who could show up anywhere from the top line to the fourth. But he hadn’t trained much over the summer after the trade, and his drinking had started to increase. “It built up to where I could drink four or five beers and go play and score a goal and an assist,” Setoguchi said. “Do it again, do it again, do it again.”
For the most part, Setoguchi was able to keep his reputation for partying quiet. The one time it caught up with him was when the Sharks were in Minnesota for the first time since the trade from San Jose. Setoguchi was late for the morning meeting, and coach Mike Yeo made him a healthy scratch. Rumors spread that Setoguchi was out drinking the previous night with several of his former teammates. Not true, Setoguchi said. He had invited Mitchell and Sharks defenseman Jason Demers to his home that night for dinner and to watch the college football championship. “I think maybe I had a glass of wine, and I was in bed at 11 o’clock,” Setoguchi said. “I plugged my phone in, and the cord wasn’t plugged into the brick. My phone just died. That was it.
“No one’s going to believe you, but I look back at that and laugh now. I tried to do the right thing one night and it bites me in the ass.”
In the final game of the 2012-13 season, Setoguchi scored the winning goal that propelled the Wild into the playoffs. He expected to be coming back the following fall, but in July, while in Mexico attending teammate Clayton Stoner’s wedding, he learned he had been traded to Winnipeg.
At first, Setoguchi welcomed the trade to the Jets, envisioning himself playing alongside Evander Kane and Mark Scheifele. But he wasn’t in good shape when he reported to training camp. Before long, his drinking became a bigger problem. “I was always kind of by myself there,” he said. “Going to all these new teams so many times, you can only get close to certain people.”
Players of a similar age such as Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler all had family responsibilities, Setoguchi said. He’d go out with the younger guys on the team occasionally, but they didn’t drink, so he’d just have dinner with them, drink, and then they’d drive him home.
More often than not, however, Setoguchi drank alone. That added to a growing depression, which led to even more drinking. By his count, he missed three different meetings with the Jets because of it. He often headed to the bar in the casino across the street from the MTS Centre, Winnipeg’s home rink. Later, he learned the casino, like the team, was owned by True North Sports and Entertainment. Word likely got back to the Jets. “But at that point,” Setoguchi said, “I didn’t really care.”
Alcohol wasn’t his only problem. Over the years, there were times he abused Ambien, a prescription drug that helps players sleep after games. In Winnipeg, he was offered cocaine and did not turn it down. “I did a lot there where I would stay up all night till 6 in the morning, 7 in the morning, do a little bit, go to morning skate, go home, sleep for six hours and get up to play,” Setoguchi said. “I’m surprised sometimes I didn’t have a heart attack. Three or four months of that.”
Stuck in coach Claude Noel’s doghouse, Setoguchi welcomed the mid-season arrival of Paul Maurice as Noel’s replacement, but he was in no condition to play well. Those close to Setoguchi were aware his situation was getting worse in Winnipeg. Versteeg said he received calls from friends on the team, Ladd in particular. That’s when Versteeg became concerned about Setoguchi. Looking back, Setoguchi acknowledges he had been feeling the pressure to live up to the big contract he signed with the Sharks, and when he wasn’t producing, that contributed to the depression that led to the heavy drinking. “The NHL, it’s a high-stress job,” Versteeg said. “There’s a lot you go through on a daily basis that people don’t really see."
As a free agent for the first time in the summer of 2014, Setoguchi didn’t find a welcoming market. But that August, Calgary signed him to a one-year, $750,000 contract. To get even that, Setoguchi said, he told Flames GM Brad Treliving he would stay away from alcohol, “that I’d keep it clean.”
That vow was soon broken. Taber is 163 miles from Calgary, not far by Alberta standards, and Setoguchi began drinking again with his old crowd. He went scoreless in his 12 games with the Flames. Getting bag-skated and looking for excuses, he admitted he wrongly focused on coach Bob Hartley. “He demands so much of people, and I wasn’t in good enough shape,” Setoguchi said. “I just kind of said ‘Screw this guy…he’s picking on me.’ I didn’t really care. It was like, ‘I’m done. I got a one-year deal, whatever. What are you going to do about it?’ ”
That’s when Calgary shipped him to the Adirondack Flames in Glens Falls.
"Do I consider myself an alcoholic? Yes, because I was at the time,” Setoguchi said. “Do I feel that depression led to more of my alcoholism? Absolutely."
Life in the minors was a tough adjustment for Setoguchi, especially in a small town. He did produce while he was there (three goals and 10 points in 19 games), but the hernia injury killed any remote hope the 28-year-old had of getting back to the NHL, and recovery from the surgery only added to his downtime.
Things improved when Brian McGrattan landed in Glens Falls with Setoguchi after being demoted by the Flames. The two roomed together, with Setoguchi cooking meals for them on a regular basis. McGrattan had gone through his own substance abuse problem before entering the league-sanctioned rehab program in 2008. He recognized Setoguchi needed help but didn’t push him to get it. “I’m not a big preacher about it,” McGrattan said. “I try and lead by example, the way I live my life. I can enjoy every part of life. I don’t have to have drinking and drugs involved in it. People see that. Maybe it made ‘Seto’ realize he did have a problem and made him look at himself.”
Setoguchi doesn’t disagree with that approach. “There were a lot of people who had been around me at the time who said, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t be drinking like that,’ ” Setoguchi said. “But I think if someone would have told me, ‘Go in, go in,’ I would have stayed out longer just to prove them wrong.”
The NHLPA doesn’t release data on how many players have taken part in the substance abuse program in effect since 1996 or what the success rate is. Not all cases become public, but Setoguchi first disclosed his situation in Toronto a year ago.
For him, rehab was mostly about dealing with the depression and insecurities that led him to drink. Shame and guilt also were on the table. “Do I consider myself an alcoholic? Yes, because I was at the time,” Setoguchi said. “Do I feel that depression led to more of my alcoholism? Absolutely. You know, you come to the rink and you’re on the third line or not playing that night. Well, then it’s ‘Screw this guy, I’m going to go out and get wasted tonight.’ ”
There have been significant changes in Setoguchi’s life since he entered rehab in April 2015. Sitting in a Starbucks in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose, he looks trim and said he has dropped 30 pounds, down to 200, his listed weight when he broke into the NHL almost a decade ago. His white 2011 Aston Martin Vantage is gone. Instead, Setoguchi now drives a burly 2016 Ford F150 truck. “I’m a farm kid,” he said. “I don’t know why, when I broke into the NHL, I didn’t just buy a Ford truck. Drove one my whole life.”
Setoguchi is now one of the married guys, too. He married his longtime girlfriend, Kelly, a San Jose native who left medical school to become a physician’s assistant so that her career could better accommodate his life as a pro athlete. “He has a huge support group and that makes a huge difference,” she said. “They were willing to talk about things and not pretend like nothing happened.”
Setoguchi did get a shot at returning to the NHL a year ago when the Toronto Maple Leafs offered him a tryout, but he was released during training camp. Shortly thereafter, he secured a roster spot in Davos, Switzerland, thanks in part to a phone call from his former Sharks teammate Joe Thornton, who played there during NHL lockouts in 2004-05 and 2012-13.
Setoguchi felt he rediscovered his game in Davos, putting up 11 goals and 24 points in 30 games. Returning to Switzerland, or elsewhere in Europe, would be fine if that’s how things play out, both he and his wife said, but they’re both hopeful for a return to the NHL. “I’ve helped myself, and every day I try to help myself be a better person,” said Setoguchi, now 29. “I feel like I’m a pretty good gauge for young kids as to how quick it can hit and how fast it can stop. I wouldn’t say a mentor, but I think I’d be good to have around an AHL team for a bit. Hopefully someone can see that I’ve turned it around. I can definitely help.
“It hits you so fast that you don’t know when it’s done.”