Attila Ambrus was never a great hockey player, or he wouldn’t have been playing for a team in Hungary so threadbare that on some paydays, nobody got paid. On the other hand, Ambrus was determined. When his tryout with UTE, once Hungary’s premier team, went badly, he hung on as a janitor and Zamboni driver. Then, when he drunkenly drove the Zamboni through the boards, he hung for his life.
I’m grateful that Ambrus’s checkered hockey experience provoked somebody at Little, Brown to send the book about Ambrus to “Only A Game.” Otherwise “Ballad of the Whiskey Robber” might never have come to my attention, and that would have been my loss. Subtitled “a true story of bank heists, ice hockey, Transylvanian pelt smuggling, moonlighting detectives, and broken hearts,” this unlikely story is certainly more concerned with Ambrus’s career as a bank robber and folk hero than with his exploits (?) on the ice. But it’s also about a culture I’d never have known anything about if somebody hadn’t figured the sports hook was worth a shot. Apparently, survival in the Hungary in which Attila Ambrus flourished for some years practically required disregard for the law. Ambrus was remarkable not because he was a criminal, but because he was an exceptionally flamboyant criminal whose antics, some of them carefully planned, many of them drunken, charmed a population with few other opportunities to be charmed.