Catching Up with “Whiskey Robber” Author Julian Rubinstein

Cover of the Ballad of the Whiskey RobberTHE BALLAD OF THE WHISKEY ROBBER is the incredible true-life story of Attila Ambrus, a “professional” goalie by day and a bank robber by night (and sometimes day).

The book is an exciting page-turner, as entrancing as any piece of fiction you’ll pick up. But it’s also a nice snapshot of post-Communism Hungary. It was one of the best books I read last year. Julian Rubinstein, the book’s author, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and about hockey.

PuckUpdate: What was your relationship to hockey before writing the book? Were you a fan? Are you now a fan?

Rubinstein: I was a sportswriter for five years at the Washington Post and Sports Illustrated. I didn’t cover hockey as a beat, but I a few times I was out there, with the Caps in particular, if our beat guy was off or something. It wasn’t really my sport though, and to be honest, now I barely watch anything. I did enjoy watching UTE practicing in Budapest though, just imagining Attila out there in the net, screaming his head off.

PuckUpdate: Do you think any position other than a goalie could have led a double life as a robber and an athlete? Is there something about the solitary nature of the position that would lend itself to this kind of thing?

Rubinstein: That’s probably a good point about the solitary nature of the goalie. Not to mention the mentality it takes to stand as a practical target for flying pucks, some sort of fearlessness perhaps. But Attila was also not exactly a classical goalie. Remember, he once gave up 23 goals in a single game. He was probably a better Zamboni driver, which as you know was his first job with the team. But actually, he was a very good athlete, and extremely quick, and without that it’s unlikely he would have outrun the police so many times.

PuckUpdate: Why aren’t there more Hungarians playing in the NHL? Right now, there are none.

Rubinstein: There was Levente Szuper, also a goalie, who I think played with the St. Louis Blues, but not much (Ed. note: He never made it to the NHL). Hockey really isn’t nearly as popular in Hungary as it is in the Czech Republic or even in Romania.

PuckUpdate:Is there an update on Attila Ambrus? Is there any chance he’ll be released early? Is he still a folk hero in Hungary?

Rubinstein: Well, Attila is still in the max security prison in northeast Hungary. I visited him with a documentary filmmaker (Nina Davenport) and we put together a clip of the day that gives a sense of how he’s doing and what his life is like behind bars.

He is apparently going to be moved to a lower security prison soon in advance of his release, which could come in the next two years.

PuckUpdate: Ultimately, did capitalism improve life in Hungary or make things worse?

Rubinstein: Hmm. Well, that depends on who you ask. To me, there’s no simple answer. Let’s say things didn’t go as planned.

Rubinstein is finishing his second book and is working on a short documentary series called One Day Project.