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The Malik Report

George’s summer reading recommendation: The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

This isn't Red Wings-related, but it's important to me: nearly every "hockey person" will tell you that Ken Dryden's The Game is by far the best hockey-related book ever, but as far as I'm concerned, Julien Rubenstein's The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts (link goes to a KK Affiliate) blows The Game out of the water.

Rubenstein can't replicate Dryden's near-lyrical prose, but his (mostly) true accout of Hungarian goaltender Atilla Ambrus's discovery of bank robbery as a way to supplement his truly dreadful income as a post-Eastern-Bloc collapse professional hockey player--and his inability and unwillingness to stay away from the high-spending, sleeping-around lifestyle of a slightly bumbling professional bankrobber to get out while the "gettin's good," resulting in incarceration...

It's not the story of a hero or a villain, it's the story of someone who finds himself having to rob banks to get by while his country tries to come to grips with the financial devastation of the first post-Soviet years, and The Hockey News's Jason Kay points out that the anti-hero protagonist is beautifully complex:

Ambrus endured an abusive upbringing in Romania and decided to escape the oppressive Communist country by clinging to the undercarriage of a train. Life, however, wasn’t much prettier in Hungary and after making a few attempts to live a “normal” life – which included tending goal for UTE of the Hungarian league and driving the club’s Zamboni – he resorted to pelt smuggling. When that didn’t bring in as much as he’d hoped for, he turned to the more lucrative crime of bank robbing.

Ambrus got his nickname because of his penchant to down a shot or six of whiskey before each heist. He got his reputation as a “thief of the people” through a conspiracy of factors. His 27 bank/post office robberies in the Budapest area were largely non-violent. Wearing an array of zany costumes during the crimes, he was even “friendly” at times, presenting one bank teller with a rose. In a way, it was viewed as performance art.

Meantime, Hungary needed a hero. With the Iron Curtain having fallen, the nation was in turmoil. Poverty and government corruption was rampant. That, in some ways, made Ambrus a welcome everyman celebrity, a Robin Hood of sorts (despite the fact his loot never went to the poor, unless you count him). At the height of his popularity, more than 80 percent of people surveyed in one poll supported his actions.

His tale is also tinged with comedy. Ambrus frequently eluded the undermanned, underfunded and, apparently, under-trained Budapest police force, whose robbery unit, says the book, learned some of its craft by watching Columbo reruns. One of the detectives on the case had a nickname that translated into “Mound of Asshead.” Ambrus, meantime, after being captured once, made a daring escape from prison, ostensibly by tying together bed sheets and jumping to freedom.

The hockey is equally slapstick. For roughly a decade Ambrus was the backup goalie on the UTE club, but stopping pucks wasn’t a particular strength. In one five-game stretch, he allowed 88 goals, including 23 in one contest.

According to Kay, Ambrus was released from prison after serving 12 years of a 17-year sentence, and while the movie  deal fell through (there was a movie deal at one point), Ambrus's legacy as a folk hero lives on:

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Comments

DrewBehr's avatar

Read that book about a year ago and absolutely loved it. Apparently Johnny Depp picked up the movie rights to it, but nothing has yet developed, which is beyond disappointing.

Posted by DrewBehr from The Mitten on 07/27/14 at 02:57 PM ET

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About The Malik Report

The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.