Longtime television journalist Henry Champ was well known for his work with the CBC, CTV and NBC and carved out a storied career as one of Canada’s most respected international correspondents.
But for Ilarion Bonhomme of the Brandon University Bobcats men’s basketball team, Champ will always be known as the man who changed his life.
Champ, the chancellor of Brandon University, died Sunday in Washington, D.C., at the age of 75. A Hartney native, Champ went on to attend Brandon College before it became a university and got his start as a reporter at the Brandon Sun, beginning a storied career as a reporter that would span five decades. Champ retired in 2008 and became BU’s chancellor, tirelessly promoting his alma mater and helping recruit students from the Washington area where he first met Bonhomme.
“He came to one of my games and he was real interested in me coming to Brandon and I was an 18-year-old kid, so I just laughed it off. I didn’t want to go to Canada,” Bonhomme said. “But he persisted and he got me up there. I mean, he changed my life. He took me from a real scary place.”
The U.S. capital is known as one of the most beautiful and, in some areas, one of the most dangerous cities in the country. Bonhomme grew up in one of the rough neighborhoods, where gangs and drug dealers rule the night and where he lost friends to the violence that plagues parts of the district. Basketball was a way out and Champ helped make it possible for Bonhomme, a 22-year-old point guard who came to Brandon and became the Canada West conference rookie of the year in 2011-12.
“Definitely, there was lots of violence going on, drug dealers, rival gangs, just violence. It’s definitely not a place you want to be,” Bonhomme said. “You go to one side of town and it’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been and you go to the other side and you just want to get out of there …
“Luckily I never have to get into any of that kind of stuff because of Henry Champ. I mean, I owe him my life. I just miss him so much and I can’t believe he’s gone.”
Champ helped recruit both Bonhomme and former Bobcat Kyrie Coleman, another Washington native, to play for coach Gil Cheung, who was happy to have Champ’s support.
“(Champ) was instrumental in getting players up here, but that’s just the athletic program,” Cheung said. “He brought up a ton of kids for the music program at BU and he’s done a great job being an ambassador and chancellor for the school … It’s rare I find a chancellor being so involved and having such a passion for athletics.”
Bonhomme admits he didn’t take him seriously the first time he met Champ, some old guy from Canada trying to convince him to head north to play basketball. But his parents were thrilled with the idea, especially when some of Bonhomme’s other scholarship offers at American schools dried up after he suffered a knee injury.
“When I first told them about the Canada story, for me it was a joke … but they said you should consider it,” Bonhomme said. “My parents wanted me to get away and get out of there badly, so they were super excited.”
For Bonhomme, it was the best decision he ever made.
“Definitely. The phone call that I made to let them know I was coming here was the best phone call I ever made,” he said. “It’s definitely my second home. I mean, home is always there (in Washington). My parents are there, my family is there, but I love this place. And I owe it all to Henry.”
Bonhomme became very close to Champ, meeting his wife and children and chatting every week, although Champ never talked about his health.
“He would message me after games, making fun of my bright shoes,” Bonhomme said. “I just thought he would live forever. Any time I would call him … I could hear it in his voice that he was sick, but he didn’t want sympathy from anybody. He would always just brush that off and talk to me about school and my studies and to really stay focused.”
Champ’s passing has hit hard for Bonhomme. But it has also made him more determined than ever to make him proud, earn his degree and lead the Bobcats to big things.
“Everything I do, he is in the back of my mind,” he said.
NOTES: All four Bobcat teams are on the road this weekend, with BU’s men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball teams off to Thunder Bay, Ont., to face Lakehead, while the men’s volleyball team takes part in the Winnipeg Wesmen pre-season tournament … It’s only three games in, but the most surprising start in the WHL has to belong to the Brandon Wheat Kings. Despite losing the likes of Mark Stone, Michael Ferland, Brenden Walker, Kevin Sundher, Darian Dziurzynski and Paul Ciarelli (a combined 185 goals and 451 points), the Wheat Kings are off to a 3-0 start under new head coach Dwayne Gylywoychuk and lead the league in goals scored (19). Brandon’s Alessio Bertaggia (three goals, four assists, seven points), Ryan Pulock (1-6-7), Nick Buonassisi (2-4-6), Jens Meilleur (3-2-5) and Jason Swyripa (2-3-5) are all in the top 10 in league scoring ... Neepawa’s John Nelson finished first out of 13 runners in the 65-69 year-old men’s division at the Montreal Marathon on Sunday. Nelson completed the course in three hours 37 minutes 56.4 seconds to place 512th overall out of 2,759 participants.