Patrick Cote's sad and shocking news the other day brought to mind hockey's most notorious bank robber. Attila Ambrus, who knocked over 26 banks in Hungary in the 1990s, became a folk hero of sorts during a time of turmoil in the country. His tale has been made into a book and he was released from prison in 2012 after serving 12 years of a 17-year sentence.
The news of Patrick Cote’s sentencing for two bank robberies the other day was in parts sad, shocking and curious. What happened to lead to his descent from one-time NHL enforcer to a life of crime?
The tale also brought to mind Attila Ambrus, the most notorious and engaging thief hockey has ever known.
If you’re not familiar with Ambrus, he was a Hungarian hard-drinking, womanizing, puck-stopping (sometimes) goalie whose legend reached iconic status. His adventures were expertly told in the 2004 book The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, written by Julian Rubinstein.
The book chronicles Ambrus from his troubled childhood to his incarceration, painting a portrait of a complex man who is both hero and villain.
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.
Alas, Ambrus’ hockey follies and bank robberies came to a permanent end in 1999 when he was apprehended and sentenced to 17 years. Ambrus was released from prison in 2012, getting a reprieve for good behavior.
There has been scattered news of him since his release, though there have been some sightings of him selling Whiskey Robber pottery (a skill he learned in the Big House).
There had been talk of the book being made into a movie, and that Johnny Depp would play the lead role, but it never came to pass. You can catch glimpses of Ambrus, and some of his adventures, on this YouTube compilation.