UHL’s most notorious team left mark on hockey
A.J. Galante was 17 years old when his father, Jimmy, dubbed “the real-life Tony Soprano,” gifted him a minor league hockey team named the Danbury Trashers in 2004. Just two years later, his father, also the head honcho of a garbage removal empire with suspected mafia ties, was indicted on several charges, which included defrauding the now defunct United Hockey League — prompting the disbandment of the team.
First and foremost, A.J. was devastated for his dad, who ultimately went to prison for seven years. On the other hand, the Trashers, which were based in his hometown of Danbury, Conn. (approximately 55 miles northeast of New York City), were everything to A.J. His whole world revolved around it and suddenly it was gone.
“Especially right after the team, I didn’t want anything to do with hockey,” A.J., now 34, told The Post in a recent phone interview. “It’s not like it was hockey’s fault what happened, it was just like PTSD almost. I stopped watching hockey, I stopped going to the game.
“It was tough because everywhere I would go, [the team] was all anybody wanted to talk to me about, ‘Oh, we wish the team was still here, when are you bringing them back?’ And it’s like, ‘Dude, we’re not bringing them back, it can’t happen.’ I had to deal with that on a weekly basis.”
A.J. turned to a career in boxing, which he said filled the void left by the Trashers. He still lives in Danbury despite several opportunities to leave, but A.J. said he didn’t want to feel like he was running away. Now, A.J. owns Champ’s Boxing Club in downtown Danbury, where he’s worked with professional and amateur fighters for the past 6 ¹/₂ years.
But when Netflix approached him to make a documentary on the Danbury Trashers, A.J. said his love of hockey was reignited.
At the end of August, the streaming service released “Untold: Crime and Penalties,” the ludicrous story of how a suspected mobster purchased an expansion minor league hockey team for $500,000 and put his teenage son in charge.
The documentary describes the Trashers as the bad boys of hockey and shows how they terrorized the UHL, teams and league officials alike. Additionally, the hour-and-25-minute flick outlines the sketchy business that occurred within the organization, including paying players under the table and putting players’ wives on the garbage company’s payroll.
The Trashers’ payroll was the highest in the league. Was it legal? Absolutely not. Galante used money from elsewhere to fund much of his operation, which included pranks on visiting teams concocted by his son. They would have the heat mysteriously go off in the opposing locker room or set the fire alarm off in the visitors’ hotel in the middle of the night.
Among the players who the Trashers brought in included Jon Mirasty, a true hockey goon who had nearly 400 penalty minutes in his first year as a professional. There was Rumun “Nigerian Nightmare” Ndur, the former Sabres, Rangers and Thrashers heavyweight whose fights were always memorable. Brad Wingfeld was another tough guy they brought in. Clips from the documentary show his gruesome injuries during his time in Danbury, including one of his legs pointing in the wrong direction and part of his finger missing after another incident.
What made the Trashers such a captivating subject, aside from all the illegal activity, was the undeniable entertainment value their story held. A.J. comprised a team of players with an edge and a chip on their shoulder, many of whom threw as many punches in a game as they had shots on goal. Footage showed fans overflowing the Danbury Ice Arena stands, and going absolutely bananas over every tussle and hit.
It appears today’s hockey fans are eating up the thrashing Trashers as well.
“Luckily, I re-trademarked the logo last year,” A.J. said. “It’s like we’re running a full pro shop again and we don’t have a team. We started releasing jerseys again. It’s crazy. It’s like doing this all over again, 16 years, 17 years later. But it’s not like we have a game coming up any time soon, so it’s kind of surreal.
“It’s kind of popped right now, people, not even hockey fans, have been reaching out, they just want a shirt, a hoodie, a jersey, anything, a hat. It’s really never been about the money, it’s just cool to see how far the logo goes and all the different places where supporters are from.”
Full disclosure: A.J. is a Devils fan.
The biggest name on the Trashers’ roster was Mike Rupp, who played five seasons for the Devils after the organization drafted him in 2000. Rupp also played two seasons for the Rangers, but he is best known for scoring the Stanley Cup-clinching goal — and the first playoff goal of his career — in the 2003 Cup Final to secure the Devils’ third championship.
One of the most notable Trasher signings, however, was Ndur, the former Ranger.
“He was one of our first signings that first year in 2004,” A.J. said of Ndur, who also played for the Sabres and the now-extinct Atlanta Thrashers. “Honestly, it was just a name that came across our desk and there was an availability there. We looked at his career and he played at the highest level, so it was something we pounced on just to have a guy like that, an all-around defenseman.
“He brought a toughness factor, he brought a bit of credibility to the lineup being that he played for the Rangers, the Sabres. It was really cool to even have the opportunity to bring him in that first year.”
Ndur played just 46 games for the Trashers, but still managed to rack up a staggering 289 penalty minutes to go along with three goals and nine assists. The Nigeria-born defenseman was hardly the only physical player on the team. The Trashers combined for an absurd 2,776 minutes in the box throughout the 2004-05 season.
If you haven’t heard — you definitely have — the current Rangers set out this offseason, right around the time the Trashers documentary dropped, to add some nastiness to their lineup. After stockpiling top-10 draft picks with high skill levels, Rangers brass knew they needed to balance out the lineup — and it was exasperated by lopsided losses to physical teams like the Islanders, Bruins and Capitals last season.
General manager Chris Drury brought in veteran enforcer Ryan Reaves, who has been an infectious presence in the Rangers locker room and was seen during training camp giving the now-in-limbo Vitali Kravtsov fighting lessons. In exchange for Pavel Buchnevich, Drury acquired Sammy Blais, a heavy-hitting winger with quick hands. The Rangers also signed a bottom-six blue-collar competitor in Dryden Hunt to a two-year deal.
A.J. knows a thing or two about beefing up hockey lineups.
“The only thing that used to get under my skin was people would say all the time, ‘Oh, that team is such a circus, I’m sure all the skilled players are embarrassed to be on that team,’ ” he said. “It couldn’t have been more the opposite. The skilled players were tripping over themselves to play with us, because we had six to eight guys that the other team wouldn’t even like try to poke check our skilled players, because they knew they had to answer for it.”
“Listen, I grew up an hour north of New York City, I know the type of town New York is. I know that passion of Madison Square Garden. I think a lot of times people forget that sports is an entertainment business. But it doesn’t matter if you’re not winning, winning is only thing that truly matters in sports. You have to find the balance and give the fans what they want.
“I’m telling you, what New York did was extremely smart, and that definitely was a Trashers move right there.”