Devin Setoguchi resurrected his professional hockey career this past season in, of all places, Switzerland.
The tranquility of his surroundings helped him focus solely on hockey after a life-transforming decision in April 2015: to enter rehab and quit drinking.
In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Setoguchi spoke candidly about his experience playing in Switzerland’s top-tier National League A for Hockey Club Davos, one of 12 teams in the circuit, and his singular focus to get his life back on track.
HC Davos, meanwhile, placed second in the NLA during the 50-game season, recording 25 regulation wins and seven more in overtime, while losing 17 in regulation and two in OT.
“It was a good experience,” said Setoguchi, the No. 8 overall pick, by the San Jose Sharks, in the 2005 NHL Draft. “Everyone in that league, they can skate and move the puck well, so it was a really fast game and everyone had a lot of skill.
“What I was surprised at was the speed of the game. It was about the same as the NHL, just on a bigger ice (surface).”
Setoguchi, a right-handed shooting right winger who made his NHL debut on Oct. 29, 2007, with a two-goal performance against the Dallas Stars, signed a contract with HC Davos last October. He played in 40 games for HC Davos and contributed 19 goals and 17 assists.
Was the 29-year-old Japanese-Canadian, satisfied with his season?
“Yeah, I think so,” he said by phone from San Jose, California. “I thought it was good. I had entered the drug abuse/alcohol program with the NHL and I was going into rehab in April. So coming out of it, I had to lose a lot of weight and get in shape as quick as I could. It wasn’t an easy road for me, but I felt I got better as the season went on . . .”
Asked to describe his role on the team and his impact, Setoguchi noted that he received quality playing time and found his niche with HC Davos.
“Ice time was good. I ended up playing on the third line with these two Swiss kids the whole year. . . . I (also) saw time on the second power-play unit,” Setoguchi said. “So it was a little bit of a change. I was used to playing first-line power play and first line. . . . We had three really solid lines, so it worked out to be good.”
Tobi Meyer, the editor-in-chief of the English-language website Swiss Hockey News (swisshockeynews.ch), confirmed by email that Setoguchi received ample attention this past season.
“Nationally, he received a kind of coverage that is quite usual for a former NHL player,” Meyer wrote. “Of course, it depended heavily on his performance on the ice, which wasn’t bad. But nevertheless, the focus on the HC Davos team was more on Finnish forward and top scorer Perttu Lindgren, who played an outstanding season.
“Moreover, Setoguchi, and all former NHL players, by the way, chose quite a difficult season in Switzerland in order to get a lot of coverage and recognition from the media as the focus was clearly on the 18-year-old Auston Matthews, who is projected to be the first overall pick at this year’s NHL Draft. He clearly was the center of attention over the course of the past season. Not just for the media, but of course also for the NHL scouts.”
Over the past decade Setoguchi appeared in 471 NHL regular-season games. He skated for the Sharks from 2007-11 and had his best season in his second campaign with the club, notching 31 goals and posting 65 points in 81 games. He moved on to the Minnesota Wild (2011-13), Winnipeg Jets (2013-14) and Calgary Flames (2014-15). Starting in his final season with the Sharks, his goal-scoring numbers declined for five straight seasons from 22 to 19 to 13 to 11 to zero in his 12-game stint with the Flames.
HC Davos’ season wrapped up in March. Since then, Setoguchi has kept busy and also had time to relax. When he’s home in San Jose, for instance, he takes his two Miniature Australian Shepherds, 6-year-old Kobe and Sake, who is 4, to the park every day.
“If I don’t get them out, they pretty much go crazy,” he said with a chuckle. He’s also a regular offseason fixture at a summer hockey camp, the VER- SET Skills Camp, in his hometown of Taber, Alberta, along with Kris Versteeg of the Los Angeles Kings. It’s something he said he’s done for six years, calling it “a little something we do to give back to the community.”
This year’s camp is scheduled for Aug. 7-13, and more than a dozen pro players are listed as camp instructors. Versteeg and Setoguchi attended the camp as youngsters, then “we ended up taking it over,” Setoguchi revealed, from brothers Ron and Rich Sutter, both of whom played in the NHL. (All told, six Sutter brothers played in the world’s premier hockey league, starting in the mid-1970s.)
In addition to looking forward to the camp, Setoguchi has been upbeat about the spring success of the Sharks that propelled the franchise to its first Stanley Cup Final appearance against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He noted that he’s close friends with San Jose center and alternate captain Joe Thornton, a golfing and training buddy. (He also trains with Sharks strength and conditioning coordinator Mike Potenza and some of the team’s players.)
“I am really excited for him and the team,” Setoguchi said. “There’s a lot of guys that I played with on that team that we shared a lot of good memories with.”
Before the Penguins captured Lord Stanley’s Cup on Sunday, Setoguchi made it quite clear which team had his support for the best-of-seven series. “I hope they can pull it out,” he said of the Sharks during an off day between Games 1 and 2 of the series. “I’m pulling for them . . .”
As he looks to resume his career for the 2016-17 season, Setoguchi is keeping his options open. He has a European agent and a North American agent.
For the NHL, mid-to-late July or August is when he predicted he’ll have a clearer picture of possible options in North America. “After the draft, after free agency and after some signings and people are kind of getting a feel for what their camps are like, then I can get thrown into the equation and try to figure out a spot that possibly can work,” he stated.
Looking at the big picture and his employment prospects moving forward, Setoguchi recognizes that he took a big step in the right direction this past season.
“Yeah, I think it had a lot to do with my off-ice (activities) if I was able to stay sober for the whole year, and did not drink,” he said candidly. “I’ve been over a year sober now, so I think that ought to play into it. My year overall was good. I had a good year. It was nice to just get back and play hockey.
“I missed pretty much a whole year, so it was nice to get back, play and skate and know that I can still do it and at a high level.”
Before he flew overseas and secured a contract with HC Davos, Setoguchi also tried out for the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the NHL’s Original Six teams.
Setoguchi was asked if being let go by the Leafs pushed him to work even harder and train harder.
He politely dismissed that notion saying, “No, you know what, I had a limited amount of time. I came out of rehab and I was 228 pounds (103.4 kg), so I had to lose 25 pounds (11.3) in order to even be considered to get a tryout. So a lot of my training wasn’t training towards the way I would train if I was in shape. A lot of my training was just trying to lose weight in order to get a tryout.
“(With the Leafs), it obviously didn’t work out, but I physically wasn’t there . . .”
He described the situation as “putting himself in quite a hole from my years before.”
Now, though, he speaks with appreciation for the opportunity he had to work in Switzerland and also travel for games or leisure in Italy and Sweden, too.
“Just being over there and being able to travel and to see Europe,” he said, “and really see the landscape and be able to take in the whole thing as well as play hockey was something that was very special to me and my wife (Kelly).”
Arno del Curto, the HC Davos coach since 1996, commanded respect from Setoguchi. His team has had an illustrious history since its founding in 1921, capturing the Swiss championship a remarkable 31 times, including in the 2014-15 season.
“He was really good,” Setoguchi said of del Curto, whose team calls the 6,795-seat Vaillant Arena home. “He took a chance on me and let me come over and play and get my game back. He was a really intense guy, (with) a really funny comedy other side to him, but he loves the game of hockey so much. . . . We had a good relationship and everything went well.”
Under del Curto’s steady leadership, Setoguchi summed up the experience this way: “It got me back playing, and playing the game I love to play.”
Meanwhile, the vibe inside Swiss arenas was quite different from his experiences playing before 15,000-20,000 spectators a night in bigger NHL venues.
“It’s more like a soccer game,” Setoguchi said. “Fans from the opposite team drive to the game and they have their section and they chant, and then your home team they chant the whole game. So they are always doing these little songs and dancing, and it’s a really cool experience if you’ve never experienced it before.”
Life, too, was tranquil for Setoguchi and his wife.
“It was really relaxing, not much stress involved,” he said without hesitation.
By comparison, he said, “in the NHL there’s a lot of stress and a lot of traveling. This is more laid back. You’re home every night and you get to really enjoy it.”
During a wide-ranging phone interview, Setoguchi answered every question with polite, detailed responses, including ones about the decision he made to enter an upscale rehab facility in Malibu, California, as part of the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. His rehab program lasted one month.
His life was at the crossroads, he admitted. Alcohol was the problem.
“Well, it was obviously a big part of my life,” Setoguchi said. “I spent a lot of my nights drinking whiskey and a lot of beer, and I was overweight and out of shape and it bounced me right out of the NHL.
It was a (big) decision and my relationship with my wife wasn’t very well. We were going to get married that summer, and it was just a decision I made to try and change my life around, get my hockey career on straight and straighten out my personal life.
“Looking back, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, and this is the best I’ve ever felt physically and emotionally.”