Mendes on Senators: Best Alfredsson memories

Alfredsson spent his first 17 seasons with the Senators and quickly became the face of the franchise (Adrian Wyld/CP)

I always knew I would write a piece about what it was like to work alongside Daniel Alfredsson.

But truth be told, I assumed that story would be written after he retired here in Ottawa.

When he announced he was coming back for another season last week, I incorrectly assumed I would have at least another year to gather my thoughts and notes together to write a comprehensive piece.

Instead, Alfredsson surprised us all with his decision to leave Ottawa and sign with Detroit.

So I was forced to spend a chunk of my weekend writing this piece, because I felt it was really important for our viewers at Sportsnet and fans of the Ottawa Senators to know what it was like to really cover Daniel Alfredsson.

I have been working at Sportsnet for 12 years and prior to that, I worked in the Senators front office. During that time, I was fortunate enough to develop a strong working relationship with Alfredsson. The piece that you’ll read today isn’t a bit of hero worship from a media member who is fretting over the loss of a superstar in his city.

Instead, I wanted to express my appreciation for an athlete who understood my job as a journalist; who respected us every day when we came into his workspace.

Here are my 11 favourite personal memories of Daniel Alfredsson:

1. The first time I ever met Daniel Alfredsson, I was an 18-year-old journalism student at Carleton University. It was November 1995 and my roommate and I had the brilliant idea of doing one of our second-year assignments on the life of an NHL player. So we faxed the Ottawa Senators PR department (yes – this story is so old that a fax machine played a prominent role) and put in the request to speak with two players. We debated who our targets should be and figured our request would be rejected if we asked for high-profile players like Alexei Yashin or Alexandre Daigle.

So my friend Chris asked to speak with goaltender Don Beaupre and I decided to ask for the Swedish rookie named Daniel Alfredsson. To our amazement, the PR department granted our wish and invited us to come cover a Senators practice at the Kanata Recreation Centre. We had to take a number of public buses to get out there, since neither of us owned a vehicle.

I clearly remember meeting Alfredsson for the first time and being completely in awe. Prior to this, the biggest interview I had landed was with the student body president at Carleton, so my knees were shaking when I was in the presence of an NHL player. I can vividly recall Alfredsson giving me terrific answers into my oversized 1995 journalism-school-issued recording device. I went back to residence and for the first (and possibly only) time in my academic career, I was genuinely excited to finish a project.

I can pinpoint that as the moment when I realized I really wanted to do this for a living. And somewhere buried in my basement, I still have the story I wrote on Daniel Alfredsson from that day – slightly yellowed and with the perforated edges from a dot matrix printer. I just never imagined that our lives would intersect like they would down the road.

2. Just a few years later, I would end up working directly with Alfredsson when I was hired by the Senators to work in their media relations department in the spring of 2000 (sadly, he didn’t remember me as the awkward teenager who had interviewed him five years earlier).

When you work in the media relations department, you end up wearing a lot of hats. I once had to mail Zdeno Chara’s hydro bill for him – but that’s a blog topic for another day. One of my jobs was to sometimes get the players to autograph various items for charity. I had to get Alfredsson to sign a jersey for us and I tracked him down in the back of the dressing room one day during my first training camp.

I was still fairly nervous about approaching NHL players, so I was probably very shaky when I approached him and said, “Daniel – do you mind signing this for us?” He grabbed the Sharpie that I had in my hand and quickly signed it for me.

A young Chris Neil was walking by at the time and caught this exchange.

“You realize nobody calls him Daniel, right?” he said. “It’s Alfie.”

I felt kind of sheepish and Alfredsson looked at me and said, “It’s true. Nobody in here calls me Daniel.”

From that day forward, I never called him Daniel again. Even when I interviewed him years later on television, I ended my segments by saying, “Thanks for this Alfie.”

3. When you work in the media like I do, people are always rushing to tell you stories about players they’ve met. I have heard countless stories about Daniel Alfredsson over the years; enough to fill this entire blog.

So I figured I would share just a single story here — one that was passed on to me by a family I met during the playoffs in Montreal this spring. They came up to me at the Bell Centre and said they were huge Senators fans that had made the drive up from Toronto. And like so many other people, they had a personal Alfredsson story to share.

A few years earlier, the Senators were visiting Toronto and this family was celebrating their son’s Bar Mitzvah. On a whim, the mother went down to the Senators team hotel at the Westin Harbour Castle and was hoping to tape a video greeting from Daniel Alfredsson to her son.

She got to the hotel and used the courtesy phone to ask for his room. Surprisingly, the hotel operator connected her and 30 seconds later she was speaking to Daniel Alfredsson. She explained her story and Alfredsson agreed to come down to the lobby to tape the video greeting for her son. But that’s not the end of this story.

As she was walking out of the hotel, she realized that she did not record the greeting properly on her camera. It was completely erased. Distraught, she went back inside the hotel. She saw a member of the Senators organization in the lobby and explained her situation. And a few minutes later, Alfredsson came back to re-tape the segment for this family. I probably wouldn’t have believed that story, but I’ve heard too many like those about Alfredsson over the years to doubt it.

4. You might wonder how Alfredsson is able to stay so down-to-earth. The primary credit goes to his parents, Hasse and Margareta. I had the pleasure of visiting their home when the Senators had training camp in Sweden back in 2008. They told me about the time that seven-year-old Daniel wrote a school essay saying he wanted to be a professional hockey player when he grew up.

I learned about a son who waited for his dad to come home from work every day and the two would go to the park around the corner to play soccer. His parents talked about how Daniel would always protect his younger siblings from bullies – especially his sister Cecilia.

Daniel’s mother Margareta has been in a wheelchair for 30 years and while Alfredsson doesn’t talk about her often publicly, she is a major source of inspiration for him.

Those close to the Alfredssons always tell you that Daniel gets his stubborn and persistent side from his mother and his terrific sense of humour from his father. Spending that day with them in Sweden was truly an eye-opening experience for me and I realized what has made Alfredsson so grounded after all of these years.

5. Speaking of that sense of humour, Alfredsson was always quick with a one-liner.

One of my favourite lines came on April 1, 2012. The Senators were playing the Islanders that day with a chance to clinch a playoff spot. I was standing on the bench during the warm-ups when Senators PR wiz Brian Morris came to me and said, “Spezza won’t play today – he went home to have his baby with his wife. And Alfie is out with the flu.” I immediately thought this was an April Fools joke given the date, but Morris was dead serious.

Despite missing their two biggest stars, the Senators cruised to a 5-1 victory and clinched a playoff spot. I was standing outside the visitor’s dressing room in Long Island waiting to do post-game interviews and Alfredsson was there in his suit, high-fiving his teammates as they came off the ice. He walked over to me and said, “We won that game because we finally got rid of the dead weight.”

I always loved the fact he never takes himself too seriously.

6. Another story I can vividly recall is the night Alfredsson celebrated his 36th birthday.

We were on a road trip in Washington and in typical Alfredsson fashion, he told me that he didn’t do anything big to celebrate his special day. His cell phone was broken that day, so he said he didn’t even get any birthday text messages from friends and family to read. But when he walked into his hotel room, his wife Bibbi had arranged for a birthday card to be waiting on the bed for him. He had a quiet dinner, but made sure he was back in his hotel room in time to watch an Anderson Cooper special on climate change that was airing on CNN. If you were a multi-millionaire celebrating your birthday in Washington, is that what you would do?

Probably not – but that’s what makes Alfredsson unique.

7. Speaking of hotels, I remember covering a Senators-Canadiens game at the Bell Centre last March. After the game ended, I walked back to the Sheraton Hotel across the street from the arena and got into a crowded elevator back to my room. I heard my name being called out and I turned around and saw Alfredsson standing at the back of the elevator. I was perplexed, because the team had left on a bus for Ottawa after the game.

Alfredsson explained to me that he had asked Paul MacLean for permission to stay overnight in Montreal and bring his family with him. It was March Break for the kids and a rare opportunity for his sons to tag along on a road trip. MacLean agreed to this plan and Alfredsson was able to sneak an extra night in Montreal with his family. He smiled as I got off the elevator and told me, “I won’t be at practice tomorrow in Ottawa. I think they’re going to call it a maintenance day for me.”

The next day, people thought Alfredsson was nursing an injury when, in reality, he was just spending time with his family.

8. The best singular moment of Daniel Alfredsson’s career had to be the afternoon in May 2007 when he put the Senators franchise into the Cup final for the first time. When he scored the goal in Buffalo, it was like everything came full circle for him.

If you’ll recall, the previous year he was burned by Jason Pominville in overtime in Game 5 as his team lost to the Sabres. That afternoon in Buffalo, I’ll always remember how he downplayed his OT heroics. He was kind enough to do a 1-on-1 interview with me, even after he had been swarmed by the media and done countless interviews.

That’s the thing I always appreciated with Alfredsson; he basically never turned me down for an interview. The only time it ever happened during a game was in Carolina this season, when he was coming off the ice after a frustrating shift and he shot me down. But after the game, as we were walking over to the team bus, he actually came over to me and apologized for blowing me off for the intermission interview.

9. You’re probably thinking that Alfredsson only made time for me when things were going well. But the true measure of a person’s character is how they respond when things are really bad.

In the fall of 2006, there were trade rumours swirling around Alfredsson and even a report that he was going to be dealt to the Los Angeles Kings. As it happened, the night that story broke I was attending a fundraising event where Alfredsson was also present.

I ran into him and chatted about the trade rumours. I told him there was going to be a lot of media attention on him the next day. I’ll never forget what he said to me: “I’ll be at my locker – same place as always. You know where to find me.”

Sure enough, the next day, Alfredsson was there and didn’t duck a single question from the media.

Another moment that sticks out to me is a game in New Jersey during the 2008-09 season.

We were doing the broadcast from Newark and it was an ugly night for the Sens, as they lost 5-1. After the game, we had to fill some time in our show and we absolutely had to have a guest join me. Standard protocol dictates you don’t get a player from the losing team to join you as a live guest after such an embarrassing finish. But we were desperate for any guest to join me and I pleaded with the Sens PR man Phil Legault to give us anybody.

A couple of moments later, Alfredsson walked over to my live location and did the two-minute segment with me, which totally saved our show. I thanked him profusely for coming out under such difficult circumstances and he said, “Any time for you, Ian. That’s my job.”

10. Another memory I have of Alfredsson in New Jersey happened a couple of years ago.

We usually stay at a hotel across the street from a mall and since it was Christmas time, a lot of the players were doing some last-minute shopping. I ran into Alfredsson inside the mall and he asked me a bunch of questions about my family and Christmas. He wanted to know what our daughters were asking for and what they were interested in.

Athletes who genuinely ask you about your own family and personal life are a rare breed. Usually, the questions only come from the reporter to the athlete – not the other way around.

And last September while I was standing inside the Marriott Marquis hotel in Manhattan covering the NHLPA meetings, I was speaking to a colleague when felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and was surprised to see Alfredsson there. He asked about how I spent my summer and how the kids were doing. He could have walked right past me because my back was turned to him and yet he stopped to chat with me. It’s those little things that I’ll always remember about him.

11. My last story comes from the night in Pittsburgh when the Senators were eliminated from the playoffs this spring. I had finished doing my live hits for television and decided to head down to the Sens dressing room area to see if I could chat with any players.

Our newest Sportsnet reporter, Shawn McKenzie, was with me on this trip and he tagged along with me down to the dressing room. As we came around the corner, we ran into Daniel Alfredsson in the Zamboni area at Consol Energy Center. I stopped and chatted with him for a couple of minutes about the loss to Pittsburgh.

While we were having this conversation, Alfredsson’s eyes kept moving towards Shawn; it wasn’t that he was annoyed that there was a third person in our conversation. He genuinely felt rude that he was ignoring him. So halfway through, Alfredsson stopped and reached out his hand to introduce himself to Shawn.

Even after his team just was eliminated from the playoffs and he was still probably feeling emotional from the loss, he still had the decency to introduce himself to a complete stranger. He is the epitome of class and grace, even in the most difficult situations.

That – in my opinion – is Daniel Alfredsson in a nutshell.

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