In 1994, Ian Mendes moved to Ottawa with one suitcase and a backpack to pursue a career in journalism. He left behind the west coast and the pacific ocean to study at Carleton, the only program of its kind at the time. He always planned to head home after his degree, but 20 years later, he’s still here; with his wife Sonia, and two daughters Elissa and Lily.
He’s also got a decorated career in sports media under his belt. Ian has spent the last 20 years working for Sportsnet, TSN 1200, and is currently writing for the Athletic. During his time in Ottawa, he’s volunteered for the Royal Ottawa Hospital, Ronald McDonald House, Roger Neilson House, Cheo Foundation, ManUp Inspire Program, and Capital City Condors. As a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan, he never misses a game, unless it’s to coach his daughter’s ringette team.
We sat down with Ian Mendes to discuss his journey from Vancouver to Ottawa, his memories of covering the Ottawa Senators, and why his work with CHEO holds such importance to his family.
Photography by Sean Sisk
You were born and raised in Vancouver. What was that like?
I love Vancouver. Especially as a sports fan. What people don’t understand is that west coast sporting events are the best. Hockey games at 4 pm, football games at 10 am. Most people who grow up on the west coast, stay on the west coast. It’s very rare to find people who go from the Pacific Ocean to the Rideau Canal. I go back to Vancouver, if I’m lucky, once or twice a year. I love it. It feels like home, but not like Ottawa. Vancouver will always have a special place in my heart. Getting the chance to grow up there, I wouldn’t trade it.
You went to Carleton for journalism. What brought you to Ottawa? What made you want to get into broadcasting?
I think like a lot of people, you get to a point when you’re 15 or 16 years old, where you realize that you’re probably not going to play in the MLB or the NHL. I was a kid who grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night and knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to get into sports media. I didn’t know if I wanted to be on TV or be a writer or what I wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to do it. At the time, in the mid-’90s, the only place you could go in Canada was Carleton University. I was 17 and had to make a decision: Do I leave my friends and my family to come out here? So I did, I came here with one suitcase and a backpack. I laugh, because I think my plan was always to come here for four years and then go back to Vancouver, and live the rest of my life on the West Coast. Now here I am, more than 25 years later, and I’ve got a lot more than just a suitcase or backpack. I have two daughters and a wife and can’t imagine ever leaving.
What are some of your favourite things about Ottawa?
The thing I love about Ottawa is that unless you’re from here, you think it’s the town that fun forgot. My friends back home, and everyone else in other parts of the country, think it’s the town that doesn’t know how to have fun. But it’s a great city. There’s a great restaurant and bar scene. If you go to the Glebe or Westboro or the ByWard Market, or to Elgin, it’s a great place. There’s great energy here that I think probably comes from having two universities, and a ton of young people. I think we get a really bad reputation. People think that this is some lame, boring government town. But I can tell you, I’ve lived here for 25 years, and it’s anything but that. I love it. There are great outdoor spaces, the canal, the parkway, there’s so much to do. I think it’s probably the best place in Canada to raise kids, because you get the amenities of the big city, but it kind of feels like a safe, small town.
You’ve worked in television, radio, and now as a writer. What’s it been like to transition through all 3 jobs?
I go back to my time at Sportsnet, I loved it. I truly loved it. I got to do everything I ever wanted to do in television. Covering the Stanley Cup, World Series, Olympics, all the cool things that I wanted to do growing up, but I knew that the schedule wasn’t conducive to having a family, so I decided to leave.
Radio was so much fun. I think I had more fun on the radio than I did in TV because the radio allowed my personality to come out. Listeners could hear my terrible puns and my bad dad jokes. I felt like that was my real personality. I could talk about food, Saved by the Bell, as well as the Sens power-play. All of it would come out. I loved it.
Being a writer, it’s only been a year. For me, I have to challenge myself. I don’t want to just do the same thing for the rest of my life. I feel like I’m on the back nine. If we’re playing a golf course, I’m suddenly on the 10th hole, and when you make the turn, you start to look at your life. You think, how did the front nine go? What are some of the things you want to accomplish? Being a writer was probably the last thing on my list, so when the opportunity came up to go be a writer I had to take it.
What are some memories that you have covering the Sens over the last 20+ years?
I always look back with so much fondness for the early 2000 Senators teams. Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Jacques Martin, Dany Heatley. That group treated me with so much respect. I still think I have good relationships with all those people. I feel like I can send Dany Heatley or Jacques Martin a text today, and they’ll get back to me. I think that speaks to the relationship we built up, the trust factor. I always look back with such regret that that group didn’t win the cup. Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, Mike Fisher, Alfie, and all those guys, deserved the cup. They were good enough to win a cup. They should have won a cup for this city and it just didn’t fall their way. I have many fond memories covering those teams in the early 2000s that I think I’ll probably carry for the rest of my life.
TV, radio or writing, what was your most memorable interview?
It’s one that I’ve done within the last year. I was fortunate enough to do a really long interview with Stephanie Richardson, Luke Richardson’s wife, last year when the Habs went to the Stanley Cup final. Luke took over as the head coach for the Habs when Dominique Ducharme was in COVID-19 protocol, and The Athletic asked if I could do a definitive feature on Luke. I’ve been fortunate to know Luke and Steph for a long time. I phoned Stephanie and said we want to do a story about Luke and the DIFD movement (Luke had tapped the pin for DIFD when he was coaching and it got some traction). We had an interview and it was the most gut-wrenching, emotional interview. She was bawling and crying during the interview. I somehow kept it together, hit stop on my recording app, and thanked her. Then I just bawled and cried to my wife. I think part of it is because we have a daughter that’s the same age now that Daron Richardson was. Having kids, you really understand it. Speaking to somebody, parent to parent, was the hardest thing I ever wrote. I went and cried in my wife’s arms. I’m like, I don’t know how they did this. I don’t know how she shared this with me. That’s the hardest interview I’ve ever done. So if you’re asking me, what’s the most meaningful interview or conversation you’ve done, I think I would put Stephanie Richardson on the top of the list because she was so open in sharing her story with me. I’ll always be forever touched by it.
You’ve always been at the forefront of so much community work, and you’re very family-oriented. Why is that?
At the end of the day, they’re not going to put my resume on my tombstone. When they put me six feet under, there’s not going to be a tombstone that says, this guy worked at Sportsnet from 2002 to 2013 and then worked at TSN. It’s going to say husband to Sonia, and father to Elissa and Lily. I’ve always carried that. At the end of the day, that’s the only thing that matters. So when people ask me to describe myself, I honestly feel like being a sports reporter would be the fourth or fifth thing on the list. I try to have that perspective be my kind of guiding principle and I think that’s led me to a lot of community work.
When you have a daughter born needing brain surgery, nine days old, I think it opens up an empathy valve that makes you want to help. Our daughter’s life was saved at CHEO, so we said, we’re going to spend the next 17 years doing CHEO fundraisers. Once we started doing CHEO fundraisers, we met the families at Roger Neilson House and Ronald McDonald House, and they asked us to volunteer. It was like, how do you not do that? So I’m very involved with both of those organizations. It’s one of the things that I’m probably the proudest of.
At the end of the day, I don’t want people to look at my career and think, man, that guy had the coolest or the best takes on the Ottawa Senators. What I want them to say is, that guy made our city better. That guy made our community better. That’s it. I don’t care about all the other stuff. I want to be the guy that made Ottawa a better place for my neighbours.
One of your daughters started playing ringette, and now you’re the coach for that team. How fun has that been for you?
Honestly, if you had asked me five or six years ago to name three things about ringette, I wouldn’t be able to. I didn’t know anything. It’s funny, our youngest daughter asked me to put her into hockey. The irony of all of this is, I don’t particularly love hockey culture. I know I work in it, but I don’t love it.
Some people reached out to us and said if your daughter’s interested in skating, we highly encourage ringette. I was like, ringette? I never thought of that. I won’t forget, I sat down with my daughter and I showed her a video on the internet. I’m like, would you be open to playing this? And I remember her asking if it’s just for girls. I yeah told her, yeah, and she said to sign her up.
We signed her up when she was eight years old. This is her sixth year doing it and I just got hooked on it. I went from being this guy who didn’t know anything about the sport, to being an assistant coach. It’s given my daughter a ton of self-esteem. I think it reignited my love for sports. It’s the best thing ever. If I had a job that offered me decent pay to coach ringette, every day of the week, I’d be gone. That’s the thing that makes me the happiest.
You’ve been married for over 20 years. How did you and your wife meet?
We both went to Carleton’s journalism school and in the second year, we were in the same TV class. That’s where we met and where we kind of started our relationship. I love to point out the fact that she asked me out. Our first date was her phoning me on Valentine’s Day, asking me to go for a drink. I laugh because when I look back, I don’t know that I would’ve ever had the courage to ask her out. I was 19 years old and I liked her, but for me to be asked out by my fellow journalism student I was like okay, this is pretty good. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what her intentions were, but I’m like, someone is asking you out on Valentine’s Day… it’s probably pretty clear that they’re into you. We started dating shortly after and 25 years later, here we are with two kids and 20 years of marriage under our belt.
Is Valentine’s Day a special day for you and your wife because of that?
It’s funny, because I think we both laugh at that. It’s a bit of a cheesy, Hallmark-induced holiday, but at the same time, it’s the time we had our first date. It was 1996 and we went to Victoria’s in the Glebe, that’s where we met. We mock it a little bit because it’s cheesy, but at the same time, it’s our first date. So yeah, I think it probably holds a special place, and every Valentine’s day we’ll try and do something special that allows us to remember our first date.
When you look at everything the Ottawa Senators did in 2021, where do you think this team is at?
This is going to be a fascinating year for the Ottawa Senators. Patience is running thin in the market. I think being at the bottom of the standings, might be okay in April or May of this year, but we can’t be having this conversation in late 2022. They can’t be a bottom-feeding team like this again. This season, to me, is their last year of potentially being at the bottom. It’s been an up and down year. Signing Brady Tkachuk to a contract extension, that’s a huge story. I don’t know that you’re going to do anything in 2022 that’s bigger than signing a guy like Brady Tkachuk. So there were some positives last year, but this thing had better get turned around in a hurry so that when we get to September-October, the fans feel confident that this could be a playoff team, or in the mix.
Finally, what advice would you give to young broadcasters looking to get into the industry?
I get this question all the time. The number one thing I would say is, don’t let your career be the thing that identifies you. I’ve always said a job is what you do, it’s not who you are. I think too many people in the media industry confuse what they do with who they are. They think that they’re media people 24/7, or that their job is their identity. It’s not. A job should be something you leave behind at 5 or 6 pm every day and then go do something much more impactful with your friends or your family. So, the number one piece of advice I would give to a student would be to just be yourself. Pursue the industry and the craft, but don’t ever put it above friendships. Don’t ever put it above your family or people that you love because at the end of the day, people love you back, but your job will never love you back.