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Rick Noonan, who was an assistant trainer with the Toronto Maple Leafs, gets a celebratory moment with the Stanley Cup in 1963.
Rick Noonan, who was an assistant trainer with the Toronto Maple Leafs, gets a celebratory moment with the Stanley Cup in 1963.

THE ’72 summit series

Hockey, the KGB and ill-fitting suits Add to ...

A hockey trainer is medic and mechanic, shrink and security guard, gofer and jack-of-all-trades.

Rick Noonan was about to start his third season as trainer for the University of British Columbia’s sports teams when called upon for the oddest assignment of his career.

The Soviet Union’s hockey team was coming to this land for a series against Team Canada in 1972. They had on their roster a masseuse, but needed a scissors-and-white-tape guy to handle their day-to-day needs. Hockey Canada asked Mr. Noonan to fill in.

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“They needed someone to eat, sleep and drink – well, not drink, though we had the odd vodka – eat, sleep and live with the Russians,” said Mr. Noonan, who is now 68 and living in retirement at Naramata. “I was the first one on the tarmac in Montreal when the Aeroflot jet landed. From then on, I was always last on and first off the bus.”

He spent every moment of every day with the Russian players, catering to their wishes and anticipating their needs. He accompanied them to a screening of The Godfather. He was the only Canadian to have regular access to the Soviet locker room.

At practice, the Canadians had the finest modern equipment and snazzy red-and-white sweaters, while the Soviets carried old-fashioned sticks and sported patches on their sweaters. Off the ice, the Canadians wore flared pants, bright shirts and wide ties of garish pattern, while the Russians wore ill-fitting suits of cheap material in a dull colour.

“I know now why you were selected to accompany the Russians,” Canadian goalie Ken Dryden teased the dishevelled trainer. “Your wardrobe best matches theirs.”

The bonhomie would be short-lived once the puck was dropped.

“I remember standing behind the Russian bench,” Mr. Noonan said. “When it got 2-0, I looked over at the Canada bench and they were pretty high. At 2-1, they were still pretty cocky. At 2-2, they wondered what was going on. Then it was 5-3, 6-3, 7-3.

“The Forum was silent. You could hear a mouse squeak. People were in such shock.”

After the Soviets’ decisive opening victory, anguished hockey people lashed out at anyone seen to be supporting the other side.

Mr. Noonan remembers a tense time. “People will think I’m a traitor, that I’m a Russian,” he said.

The presence of suspicious characters on the fringe, some KGB, some RCMP plainclothes, added to an atmosphere of menace.

Canadian newspaper reporters called on the trainer’s patriotism in a fruitless effort to get him to cough up useful information about Russian weaknesses.

“They didn’t injure easily,” he said, “and they wouldn’t show it unless it was a fracture.”

He kept them supplied with Coca-Cola – they gulped 72 bottles after one practice – and ensured tea with lemon was supplied in the locker room between periods.

They dined on steak, salad, cold cuts, tomato juice and mineral water.

While the Canadian public – and some of the Canadian players – thought of the Russians as robots, the trainer had a more intimate glimpse.

“They were subdued. Quiet. They didn’t get over-emotional. They didn’t panic,” he said.

Alexander Ragulin was the team chatterbox, while Boris Mikhailov was the team clown.

The Soviets won twice, lost once and tied once during the Canadian leg of the series.

“My job ended once we got them on the plane in Vancouver,” he said. “I went back to UBC.”

The Soviets and Team Canada headed to Moscow for the final four games of the series.

(In Russia, the Canadians were surprised to hear announcements at the Luzhniki Ice Palace delivered in flawless English. The announcer was Karl Yegorov, who had been born Carl Watts to immigrant parents in Winnipeg in 1930. The family returned to the Soviet Union in 1952. Mr. Watts worked as a radio host at Voice of Russia for decades before dying in Moscow last year.)

For Game 8, the trainer joined his mentor, Rev. David Bauer, the founder of Canada’s first national hockey team, a Basilian who abandoned his own promising professional career for the priesthood, in the dining hall at St. Mark’s College on campus, where a crowd gathered around a television.

With 34 seconds left on the clock, Paul Henderson made a wild stab for it and fell. Another shot. Right in front. Henderson scored for Canada! Mr. Noonan and Father Bauer celebrated with students at the Catholic theological school.

“You remember where you were when it happened,” the trainer said. “Same as when JFK got shot.”

For 40 years, Mr. Noonan’s role in that unforgettable September has been overlooked. He is not invited to reunions and does not appear in official Team Canada photographs. Like a good Canadian, he did his job as best he could, helping the Russians even as he quietly cheered for his fellow Canadians.

Follow on Twitter: @tomhawthorn

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