Canadian connections got quarterback Brett Hunchak to Thonon Black Panthers

They say it’s not what you know, but who you know that is most important in pro sports. For Thonon Black Panthers quarterback Brett Hunchak, that has certainly proven true.

In a stellar five year career at York University in Toronto, Hunchak had become his school’s all-time leader in every major passing statistic. Yet, as so often happens with great Canadian university quarterbacks, the phone simply wasn’t ringing for a professional opportunity.

Three-times a participant in the Canadian Football League’s U Sports Quarterback Internship program, he saw that he could compete at the highest level, but the ongoing perception of homegrown passers in Canada’s professional league simply saw the odds stacked against him.

“I had my training camps in Calgary, Edmonton and B.C. and that was kind of the moral of the story,” Hunchak recalls with a touch of annoyance. “Canadian quarterbacks just don’t have what it takes.”

A devastating ankle injury suffered his senior season in 2019 that required reconstruction certainly didn’t help matters and it seemed the door on a football career was closing, then came a fortuitous message from someone who knew his exact situation: Chris Merchant.

Hunchak spent part of 2021 season with the Stockholm Mean Machines Photo: Stefan Akander

The pair were close friends, both hailing from Calgary and long-time college competitors in the Ontario University Athletic Conference. Both had been unsuccessful in their dream of signing a CFL contract after graduation, but Merchant had since taken his talents to Europe with Spain’s Las Rozas Black Demons, leading them to a Spanish final.

It was in that game that Merchant suffered an unfortunate knee injury, leaving him unable to fulfill his upcoming contract with the Stockholm Mean Machines of Sweden. He had recommended Hunchak as his replacement and 10 days later, the York star was in Europe.

The experience was a positive one, despite an injury that kept him out of the Swedish playoffs. Now a year later, Hunchak is back in Europe for another kick at the can, this time in France with the Thonon Black Panthers. The country has become a landing spot for a number of Canadian pivots in recent years, in large part due to the French language connection. You can rest assured that wasn’t the deciding factor in Hunchak’s recruitment.

“It’s horrible right now,” he says about his French fluency, laughing. “But we’re working on it.”

Instead, it was another unexpected connection that drew him in. Thonon’s head coach, Larry Legault, is a fellow Canadian and while Hunchak knew little about him, someone else was willing to vouch for the coach.

“I had actually never heard of Larry. He came over to France well before my time at the U Sports level, but my coach, Warren Craney from York University, he worked with Larry and was very familiar with his coaching style,” he explains. “After I talked to Coach Craney, he thought that it was a good fit for me.”

That stamp of approval was more than good enough for Hunchak. For the past three weeks he’s been in France in preparation for the season, the first in the country in two years. It is a time filled with both excitement and uncertainty, as the traditional powerhouse Thonon has a roster very much different than the last time they played. All are hungry to prove themselves.

“There’s definitely a buzz this week. Once we got out for practice Tuesday, there’s a different sense of mentality from the guys that haven’t played in a while,” Hunchak notes. “We do have a fairly young team, a lot of players from my understanding left to the ELF when COVID happened, but we have a good receiving corps and some other weapons on offense and our entire defensive team is pretty strong. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can produce.”

Hunchak was a standout for York University Photo:

The opportunity to play the sport he loves again at any level is a blessing to Hunchak, but the quarterback hopes to one day make it to the CFL. That stigma that he believes once held him back is still there, but it is changing. Just this week the B.C. Lions announced that they would enter the 2022 CFL season with a Canadian as both starting and backup quarterback for the very first time in the league’s modern history.

“It’s unfortunate, but I see it slowly changing the stigma of Canadian quarterbacks through the years. Even when I first came in to U Sports it was almost unheard of and now there’s been a bunch of guys that have landed on teams,” Hunchak admits.

He aims to be an underdog success story and he doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. The most important football relationship in Hunchak’s life is the one he shares with his younger brother Colton, once the star pass catcher on the receiving end of the bulk of his passes at York.

While Brett went undrafted in the 2019 CFL Draft, Colton did get his pro shot, being selected with the very last pick by the Calgary Stampeders. Despite the Mr. Irrelevant label, the younger Hunchak has carved out a role as a rotational receiver, making his brother incredibly proud.

“It’s been one of the best things I’ve seen. I’m by far his biggest fan, I love watching him play and how he gets the job done,” Hunchak says. “I had no doubt when he was drafted last, he was going to be in the CFL a long time and he’s only just getting started, so I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

The two still talk football almost every day and Colton will be cheering on the Panthers from Canada, hoping one day soon the two brothers will share a field once again.

Watch the Thonon Black Panthers first game live here: Thonon Black Panthers @ Flash La Courneuve, February 12th, 19:00 CET (7 PM, 1 PM ET)

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.