The following is a story I originally wrote for the English section of the Rafu Shimpo, the Los Angeles Japanese Daily News (founded in 1903), on a freelance assignment. It was published in their print edition on November 30, 2016, and they have graciously allowed me to reprint the story here.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — When he was playing youth hockey in Canada, Devin Setoguchi’s favorite player was a fellow Japanese Canadian, superstar Paul Kariya, who played for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks (now the Anaheim Ducks) from 1994-95 to 2002-03, before finishing his National Hockey League career with the Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues.
Today, Setoguchi, 29, is playing for the Los Angeles Kings, hoping to complete a comeback story that would add another chapter to a family legacy in Canada that began in Vancouver, British Columbia, and includes his paternal grandparents having to survive incarceration in a horse stable nearly 75 years ago.
Setoguchi grew up in Taber, Alberta, on a farm that was established by his paternal grandparents who lived in Vancouver until World War II when they were forcibly removed from their home and community.
Indeed, Canadians of Japanese ancestry, along with their immigrant parents, were unjustly incarcerated during World War II—more than 22,000 people in all—in Canadian concentration camps, in similar fashion to the unjust incarceration of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents in American concentration camps and other confinement sites.
But the incarceration of Japanese Canadians was considerably more severe than what happened in the United States, with many incarcerees having to survive winter temperatures that plummeted to 60 degrees below zero in camps with shacks that were far more spartan than the barracks in American concentration camps, lacking insulation and in many cases, solid walls or a stove for heat. Moreover, many were forced to do manual labor and to add insult to injury, the Canadian government confiscated the real and personal property of the incarcerees and auctioned it off to help pay for their own incarceration.
Like other Japanese Canadians from the Vancouver area, Setoguchi’s grandparents were first incarcerated at Hastings Park, Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition grounds, forced to live in horse stables.
“They had to take whatever they could carry in their hands,” said Setoguchi. “When it was over, everything they had was gone. Their property was all seized. That’s why, where I’m from, there’s a big community of Japanese farmers. A lot of them migrated there after World War II with nothing.”
After camp, Japanese Canadians were not allowed to return to the west coast and Setoguchi’s grandparents ended up leaving British Columbia altogether.
“They first moved to Raymond, [Alberta],” he explained. “There was no electricity. They had to walk a mile-and-a-half to a well for water. My grandparents were young, 10-12 years old, at the time. They had to endure a very tough life at that age.”
“They moved to Taber and established Setoguchi Farms,” he elaborated. “There’s close to 12-15 Japanese families around the area. My family has been farming for many years now, growing potatoes.”
Even today, many Japanese American incarcerees are unable to talk about their camp experience—it is still too painful or they feel shame. The same goes for the victims of the Japanese Canadian incarceration.
“It wasn’t something that my grandfather talked about very much, and we never really pushed the subject,” Setoguchi noted. “I knew where they had come from and what they had gone through. It’s a pretty incredible story when you look at it and see where I am today.”
“When you look at the resiliency, when you look at the pain and suffering that they endured, and how fortunate that I have it—I had a chance to grow up, and had all the hockey equipment possible that I wanted,” Setoguchi added. “My grandparents would give me money during the year while I was in [major junior hockey in Canada]. My parents did the same thing. My Dad’s side of the family—they paved the way, having to start from nothing. They started anew and never looked back.”
Fast Start, Bad Crash
Setoguchi appeared to be headed for potential stardom in the NHL when he was selected by the San Jose Sharks in the first round (eighth overall) of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Just three years later, in the 2008-09 season, he posted career-highs in goals, assists and points with 31 goals and 34 assists for 65 points in 81 regular season games.
But things began to go downhill pretty fast for Setoguchi after that and he fell out of favor with the Sharks, who traded him to the Minnesota Wild after the 2010-11 season, which is when he turned to alcohol.
“The drinking got bad when I was traded from San Jose to Minnesota,” he said. “I held a lot of resentment towards [the Sharks]. I had signed a deal to remain in San Jose. I took less money to stay in San Jose, to stay with a winning team. But then, I was traded a couple of days later.”
“I couldn’t move on from that and my attitude really changed,” he added. “I had a lot of negativity and a lot of hate towards that organization.”
“I have nothing bad to say about them now. I mean, if you look back at that trade, they traded me for [superstar defenseman] Brent Burns. When you look at the deal, I was out of the league, and he’s one of the top two defensemen in the league. But at the time, it was hard for me to cope with being treated like that.”
Setoguchi fell into the same trap that many young NHL players fall victim to: complacency.
“It was me having the wrong mentality after signing a pretty good deal,” he noted. “I didn’t have the attitude to push for more. I didn’t take the next step that I needed to move on and it just get progressively worse.”
“I’d step away from the game and I was battling heavy depression,” he added. “Once you get depressed, that’s where it becomes the worst. The only way you cope with that—you can seek help or you can drink, and that’s what I did. It got to the point where alcohol wasn’t helping.”
With alcohol no longer enough, Setoguchi began to use cocaine, as well.
“I got into cocaine for awhile—six or seven months,” he said. “That was when I was [with the Winnipeg Jets in the 2013-14 season]. I got into that stuff and that made the depression even worse. You’re staying up all night, you can’t sleep, and then you’re playing a game the next night.”
For Setoguchi, alcohol and cocaine allowed him to avoid dealing seriously with the challenges he faced in his career.
“I knew that I wasn’t in good enough shape to play,” he noted. “I didn’t train hard enough. I made excuses for myself. But I knew that I wasn’t physically or mentally there, to play. There was a lot of guilt and shame that I was hiding behind, so I turned to drinking and I used drugs quite a bit.”
“After I left Winnipeg, I had a summer before I went to Calgary, and I didn’t drink much that summer,” he added. “I trained hard and I signed a one-year deal with the Calgary Flames with every intention of playing sober. But that didn’t last very long. As soon as I wasn’t in the lineup, I drank more and more. I wasn’t doing drugs anymore. I was just drinking a lot.”
The Flames sent Setoguchi to their minor league affiliate at the time, the Adirondack Flames of the American Hockey League, where he suffered a sports hernia, setting him back even further.
“At this point, it was every day, a constant—get up, drink, continue drinking, pass out,” he said. “I did that for three months before I went into rehab. It had gotten to the point where the last three weeks, I’d get up, I’d start with a bottle of Jameson [Irish Whiskey]. I’d be done by around noon and I’d pass out. After waking up, I’d eat something, pass out again, get up and then, drink another bottle. I did that for just over two-and-a-half-weeks.”
Setoguchi had hit rock bottom. But he quickly realized that it was time to seek help.
“I went to St. Louis to get my sports hernia checked on,” he recalled. “I had tried to stop drinking at that time, but I just couldn’t. My body needed it. Every time I tried to stop, I’d get sick—vomiting, coughing up blood, my eyes were bloodshot. I thought, ‘I’m not drinking. I’m flying back to Adirondack and I’m going to get my life straightened out.’ But when I got to the airport, I was so sick that I threw up.”
“I went to the bar and I ordered a triple Jameson on the rocks and slammed it back,” he added. “I ordered another one, and the bartender asked if I was OK. I said, ‘pour me another one.’ But at that point, I broke down with so much emotion. I called my wife, my parents and the doctor. ‘I’m going in for help.’“
“It got to the point where I couldn’t cope, on a daily basis, without alcohol. At the same time, I had physical pain. I had a stomach ulcer and liver abnormalities, so I physically couldn’t do it anymore and mentally, I didn’t want to feel like that anymore.”
Setoguchi sought help from the NHL Players Association, the union representing the players.
“I’m thankful for the program the NHLPA had, because I got to go to a facility that’s not cheap,” he noted. “The cost of one month there is a year’s salary for a lot of people. You get a lot of help, and I’m really thankful for that.”
Setoguchi has now been sober for about 19 months.
“The last 19 months has been great,” he said. “Not many people get a second chance at this, so for me to get a chance to come back and play the game I love to play, it’s something that I’ve dreamed about for the last couple of years, and now, I’m getting to live it.”
Sobriety has also had a positive effect on Setoguchi’s personal and family life.
“Since I’ve stopped drinking, my wife and I barely fight,” he beamed. “We get into arguments, but it’s done, right away.”
“A lot of problems in relationships start with alcohol—fights with family members or friends,” he added. “[Being sober], a lot my life and my relationships have taken a turn for the best because I’m able to shrug confrontation off and not get into it.”
Setoguchi also indicated that he no longer has any desire to consume alcohol.
“It got so bad that alcohol really has no appeal for me anymore, which is good,” he said. “That’s not to say that there won’t be struggles down the line, but I take each day as a blessing. I get to come to the rink and do the things I want to do. Staying away from alcohol has allowed me to do that.”
As a professional athlete who is constantly in the spotlight, Setoguchi understands that he has to be a role model, and he very much wants his story to reach as many as possible.
“That’s one of the biggest things,” he stressed. “There are a lot of people who are battling depression and alcoholism. A lot of times, when you feel that way, you’re really lonely and sad inside. You feel like nothing can help and no one can help you.”
“One of my biggest coping mechanisms in rehab was being able to talk about my feelings and talking about sharing my problems and struggles,” he added. “That really helped me, so by getting my story out there, people can read it, react to it and think, ‘if he’s doing it, I can do it.’“
The Comeback Story Begins
Although being sober again was his biggest challenge and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future, that alone wasn’t going to get Setoguchi back on NHL ice. But after playing one season in the Swiss League to get his skills back, he returned to the United States this past summer and he reached out to former Sharks teammate Rob Blake, a Hall of Fame defenseman who played 13 seasons with the Kings, and who just happens to be their assistant general manager.
The Kings brought Setoguchi into their training camp on a tryout basis.
“When I came to [the Kings training] camp, I knew I was in tough,” he noted. “I was fortunate that [veteran left wing Marian Gaborik] got hurt. That [was bad for him], but there was a chance. After that happened, Blakey said, ‘you’ve got a chance. You just need to prove it.’“
The 2016-17 NHL season began in mid-October, with Setoguchi earning a one-year contract. Since then, he has scored three goals and has added four assists for seven points in 22 games, playing on the team’s third line—he has been a solid contributor to the Kings being just one point out of first place in the Pacific Division, as of this writing.
“Rob stuck his neck out for me,” he said. “I had to elevate my play into the regular season to try to prove to myself and to not let him or the team down.”
“I count my blessings every day that I got a second chance, and I’m thankful for the coaching staff here, Rob Blake and [President/General Manager] Dean Lombardi, for taking a chance on me,” he added. “It’s been good, but I can’t be satisfied with where I am. Every day, I have to prove myself because there’s always guys looking to take your spot.”
Being back in the NHL has also given Setoguchi’s family a renewed sense of pride.
“My grandparents are some of my biggest supporters,” he said. “I was out of the NHL for two years and my grandpa called me and said, ‘awww, I’ve got to buy the NHL package again.’ He stays up, even though our [home] games are on at 8:30 at night over there. They stay up and watch every game and that means a lot to me and I’m sure it means a lot to them to see me play.”
©2016 Rafu Shimpo. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings right wing Devin Setoguchi. Photo: Juan Ocampo/Courtesy Los Angeles Kings.