AGED 12 Hans Soova made his first table tennis bat from the wooden lid of a Red Cross crate.

It was 1946 and he was living in a refugee camp for displaced people in Germany, having escaped his native Estonia with his mum and brother. His father Eduard had been taken to a labour camp in Siberia.

Walking past one of the camp’s wooden huts he heard the sound of cheering from inside. “It was followed by a click-click-click sound and then more cheering,” he recalls. “I knelt on the floor between the legs of the adults and could see a large green table where two men were hitting a small white ball backwards and forwards.”

His efforts to join in with the adults were rebuffed, but he was determined. “I needed a bat so I made one from the Red Cross food crate we had received at Christmas. My friends and I found broken balls and patched them with nail varnish and first aid plasters.”

The YMCA had taken over one of the barracks where there was a leisure room with a table tennis table. Over Christmas, when the building was closed, Hans and a friend sneaked in through a window they had managed to leave unlocked from within. “The net had been removed so we used a section of a metal stove pipe,” he says. “Unfortunately we were caught and thought we would be banned, but after that it was decided that kids would be granted an hour a day in which to play.”

Hans soon became camp champion, something he repeated at the seven refugee camps in which he lived for the next few years.

That drive to play table tennis saw Hans, who came to England in 1951, carry on playing and, more importantly, coaching, throughout his life.

Now 86, earlier this month he won the national Pride of Table Tennis ‘Outstanding Contribution to Table Tennis Award’ in an annual ceremony held by Table Tennis England.

This year’s event , which was held on Zoom, recognised Hans’ 56 years coaching.

He has coached 24 national and international champions from Yorkshire and been mentor to three national coaches from Bradford - Sylvia Worth, Sally Midgley and Mark Smith, all of whom he taught to play.

He also coached England player Melody Ludi, former England and European number one Kevin Beadsley, Michael O’Driscoll who won every national age group in England as a junior, and Mary Fuller, who represented England in the European Youth Olympics. Michael was also European team and doubles champion with Chris Oldfield from Sheffield, who used to travel to Bradford three times per week to be coached by Hans.

Hans’ nomination for the award came from Beckfoot School pupil and player Isabella Crooks, and Sylvia Worth.

“It was a huge surprise - I feel so proud,” he says, “But these things don’t just happen like that. I have had so much help from so many people and I would like to thank them all. I want to thank all the parents, players, other coaches and teachers - everyone, past and present. They have all been amazing.”

Hans worked as a weaver in Brigella Mills before joining the Shipley engineering firm Metal Box. The firm had a successful table tennis team which was unbeaten for many years throughout the 1950s. One year they won the Yorkshire Club, the Bradford League Challenge Shield and the Burton Cup - the first team to achieve this.

Lacking in confidence, it was Hans’ late wife Christine who persuaded him to apply for his first coaching job at the former Rhodesway School in 1965. “She said ‘you are a good player, you are good with children - you have got nothing to lose’ so I applied,” he recalls. “They said to see how it went for six months. I am still coaching all these years later.”

He went on to become head coach at the Table Tennis Centre of Excellence in Leeds.

Hans also coached for 20 years at Oakbank School in Keighley, whose team won many awards and produced three English internationals. He and now coaches at Bingley Beckfoot Table Tennis Club based at Beckfoot School.

Hans’ life story took an unexpected turn in 1991 when he and his bother were reunited with his father, who had been taken to a labour camp in Siberia during the war. They believed each other had died.“We met him on separate occasions. It was a very emotional time,” he says.

In 2012, Hans was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to table tennis. He dedicated it to Christine.

Over the past few months he has been keeping his hand in playing table tennis outdoors in Baildon Park and has been able to coach one-to-one at Halifax Table Tennis Centre, where he also teaches the sport.

“Magic,” is the word he uses most frequently to describe table tennis. “It really is magic. Good players do things with the ball so quickly, you can’t see they’ve done it. It’s a game for all ages, adults and children can enjoy it.”

Hans cannot wait to return to coaching. “At one point Covid was so prevalent I thought I would not get back to table tennis. I was so pleased when Beckfoot called to say they wanted me back.”