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From Danbury Trashers GM to Netflix Doc Star: Meet AJ Galante

Could the early-2000s' most controversial hockey team exist in 2021? Did the documentary get everything right? How true are the 'Sopranos' comparisons? Galante opens up in this Q&A.
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Untold is Netflix’s new sports-documentary series, its answer to ESPN’s 30 for 30. As its title implies, Untold unearths sports tales that haven’t been revisited in detail, from the NBA’s infamous ‘Malice at the Palace’ to the mental-health struggles of tennis player Mardy Fish. Arguably the surprise-breakout episode of the series thus far, however, is Crime and Penalties, which tells the tale of the Danbury Trashers, a  team that took over the United Hockey League in the early 2000s after waste-disposal baron Jimmy Galante, dubbed “the real life Tony Soprano,” gifted a team to his then-teenage son AJ Galante. Throwing all of himself into managing the franchise, AJ built a rebellious squad of violent enforcers that became a controversial runaway success story.

If you’re a hockey fan, you’ve likely watched the documentary by now or at least heard tales of the Trashers, as detailed by Steven Ellis in this piece for The Hockey News. But what has happened to AJ Galante since the documentary dropped Aug. 31? He caught up with The Hockey News this week to discuss the reaction to the documentary, whether the Trashers could survive in modern hockey culture, all those Sopranos parallels and much more.

THE HOCKEY NEWS: There’s a ton of information out there already on what’s in the documentary, and anyone with Netflix has the opportunity to watch it, so let’s skip any synopsis and start with this: how has your life changed since the documentary came out? Has it been a whirlwind?

AJ GALANTE, GM, DANBURY TRASHERS, 2004-06: 100 percent it’s been a whirlwind. It’s Netflix, right? So you just never know, especially with documentaries. You don’t know how popular something can get. You don’t know how people are going to receive it. The day before the doc dropped, I was thinking, “Maybe the rest of this week might be a little crazy with people interested, and it might die off.” It’s been a little over 30 days now, and it seems like it’s still chugging along there. But it’s been a total whirlwind. Our social media have blown up. People’s desire for merchandise and jerseys, it’s like I’m running a full pro shop over here, and we have no games going on. It’s so weird. We’re just trying to keep up with the demand. It’s been nuts. But it’s a good thing, and it’s a humbling thing, and you’re just trying your best to accommodate everyone and give everyone time.

THN: How did the documentary come to pass in the first place? Did you approach Netflix with your story or did someone come to you?

GALANTE: I remember it like yesterday. It was a week after Thanksgiving in 2018. The Way brothers produce the whole Untold series for Netflix and directed our episode. I’ve become very close with them. But at the time, at the end of 2018, this guy Maclain Way kept pestering me about doing something, and I kind of ignored him, because I’d told this story so many times that I got tired of telling it. So I thought, “I’m gonna let it go,” and he kept pestering me, pestering me.

Finally I was like, “Let me give him the respect of a phone call at least.” I called him, and he pitched the whole thing to me in 90 seconds. He said he and his brother (Chapman Way) were contracted by Netflix to run this whole series, the five episodes. He’s rattling off the Malice at the Palace, Caitlyn Jenner, Christy Martin. And I’m thinking to myself, “How are the Danbury Trashers going to fit in with these bigger-name stories and events?” I didn’t believe him. And he said, “No, trust me, if you let us do it, we’re going to knock it out of the park. People are going to love the story.”

I said, “Listen, I’ll talk to my dad,” but to be honest, I wasn’t going to really sell it too hard to my dad, because I figured, “This isn’t going to be anything anyway.” Me and my dad talked, and my dad spoke to Maclain as well. And we finally said to ourselves, me and my father, hey, since he’s been home (from prison), we haven’t really put this story to bed, so to speak. So we said, you know what, why not? They started filming in August 2019, and here we are.

THN: The documentary touches on your father’s trouble with the law and time spent in prison (for racketeering, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and defrauding the IRS). How difficult was it for him and for you to do interviews for Crime and Penalties and tell the full story of your lives together while tiptoeing around the things you are not legally allowed to share? Did you have to be extremely careful about how you word everything?

GALANTE: Yeah, for sure. After the team folded, we did a couple (interviews), and everyone tries to get to my father through me. People try to butter me up because they know they really want to speak to my dad. My dad’s not going to just talk. That’s just not his style. You really have to sell him an idea. When it came to this Netflix thing, it was about finality, trying to put this story to bed in a way. I don’t know if it’s going to bed, but we thought so. And it’s more of a legacy thing for us, to highlight some of the stuff we want to do.

What sold it to my father was, obviously you can’t tell the story without the unfortunate legal stuff that went on, but it wasn’t the main theme of the doc. The Way brothers did an amazing job balancing all the different layers of the story. So it wasn’t just highlighting my dad’s criminal stuff. I think that helped him. He did have a lawyer there when they did interviews. A lot of these allegations were over a decade an a half ago anyway, but still, my father is a private person. We trusted the producers, and we trusted Netflix, but he made sure he had a lawyer – off camera, obviously. Thankfully, there weren’t really any issues.

THN: It’s obvious you and your family are happy with the documentary. But are there any misconceptions people have about you after seeing Crime and Penalties that you want to clarify?

GALANTE: I’ve gotta tell you. I would love nothing more than to have something to complain about, but it was over 95 percent accurate, which makes it even more insane as I watch it as a 35-year-old now. Little nitpicky things that only I would notice were told a slightly different way or presented a little differently, but it was very accurate. My father, who is a very tough critic, was very pleased with it as well. And I think overall it was done the right way. It was very balanced. I thought it was a fair documentary. I don’t think it leaned on one side or the other, and it gave the whole scope of the story.

THN: The Trashers attracted so much attention because of the controversy and the violence they brought to the ice. But they also were quite a dominant team in the standings. Do you ever feel like you don’t get enough credit for crafting an actually-good team back then?

GALANTE: It’s funny because that was always the dirty little secret, that we were actually a good team. When we decided this was the direction we wanted to market our team and picking up the types of players we had, the reality was this: if you’re not winning, a lot of the stuff we were doing would’ve gotten old quick for people. At the end of the day, no matter how entertaining, if a sports team is not winning, it’s never gonna work. I would’ve loved to replace some of our goal-scorers with more physical guys, but you had to win, too. If you have a thousand fights a game, that’s cool and all, but if we’re getting killed every night, people are going to tune out eventually. So we really had to balance the whole thing.

The one criticism at the time, the only thing that used to irk me a little bit, was that a lot of hockey purists and pundits would say, “A lot of these skill players must feel embarrassed to be part of this team.” And it was the exact opposite. You sleep a lot better at night knowing you have an alarm system, right? I can’t even tell you how many “skill” players wanted to play on the Danbury Trashers. Other teams wouldn’t even so much as pokecheck these guys because they knew they’d have to answer to eight different heavyweights. Our skill players had a lot of ice to move around in. If you’re ever bored and go through the statistics on each guy, most of our players had their best years stat-wise on the Danbury Trashers. We obviously, rightfully got a lot of criticism at the time for some of our antics and the way we were doing things, but these skill players loved being on the Trashers.

THN: How crazy has the resurgence in fan interest been over the past several weeks?

GALANTE: The whole thing is amazing to me. Last year, thankfully, I re-trademarked the logo just in case anything blew up. I really wasn’t anticipating anything. Out of my gym I started selling T-shirts and hoodies. But I did not anticipate what’s been going on the past few weeks in regards to jersey demand. I’ve got a lot of artists, musicians, rappers, current NHL players that reached out to me privately about getting jerseys. I have organizations reach out wanting merch for the team. The whole thing is so crazy to me, it’s so humbling, and we’re just trying to accommodate as many people as possible, but it’s a lot of work. I’m like UPS over here, trying to ship things out, this way, that, way, it’s insane.

THN: Are you feeling any kind of itch to get back into the game in the wake of all this renewed excitement over the Trashers? Has any team or league reached out to you?

GALANTE: If I had a penny for every time since 2006 someone’s asked me to bring the Trashers back or get involved with hockey, I could retire today. Someone asked me on a podcast last week, and I never really thought about it before: “AJ, when the Trashers disbanded in ’06, were you ever approached by another team to run the team or scout for the team in any capacity?” I was never asked that before, and the reality is, no, I’ve never been approached to get involved. After the team folded – and it’s not like it’s hockey’s fault – I had a tough time watching hockey. It was a very painful time in my life. It was tough to lose the team we worked so hard to build for just two seasons.

I’ll say this: when the Way brothers approached me about doing this doc, out of nowhere I started watching New Jersey Devils games again, because I was a Devils fan growing up. The game is a lot different. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but it’s just different. I’m trying to keep up. It’s such a fast game now. The past two and a half years, I’ve gotten an itch. I miss hockey. I miss how passionate the hockey community is, how loyal they are, the game itself. I’ve slowly but surely started getting back into it, even if it’s just watching it on TV and trying to see who’s who and what’s what in the game of hockey now, who the big guys are, who the tough guys are, all that stuff.

THN: Do you think the Trashers’ entire journey could happen in 2021? The sport itself has become a lot less violent than it was even 15 to 20 years ago. Would the Trashers would be allowed to exist today or would things have been squashed quicker because the game is perceived so differently?

GALANTE: Not a snowball’s chance in hell would the Trashers ever last in 2021. There’s no way whatsoever what we were doing back then would ever fly. We’d get kicked out of the league in a week. First and foremost, the game is different. It’s a lot more skilled than it was back then. Not to take away from guys who played back then, but it was a different game. The types of players out there now are a bit different. Sports are a reflection of our society, and I’m not saying this is better or worse, but I think things are a little softer now. I watched football yesterday and there’s a flag on every single play. It’s like anything else in life: you acquire different tastes as you grow, and I just think hockey has evolved.

Do I miss some of the physicality? Sure. That’s what drew me to the sport back in the early ’90s. But you’ve got to adjust with the times. People may not like it, but that’s what you have to do. You have to say to yourself, “Each team doesn’t have three heavyweights anymore,” or, “If you get one fight a game, that’s actually a treat now.” You just have to roll with it and find other things to admire about the sport that you may not have thought about. Now, you look at the speed of some of these players, and it’s insane. Like with anything else in life, you’d got to adjust. It’s not always easy to do, but you have to.

THN: The Sopranos comparisons and whispers that your family inspired the show will always follow you around. From your dad working in the waste business to your name being AJ to growing up in New Jersey, the comparisons are natural to make. Do you get tired of hearing about that? Is it flattering or annoying?

GALANTE: I’d rather be compared to Meadow Soprano than A.J. Soprano. Listen, you just have fun with it, man. It’s funny. I’ve heard it a lot of my life. What people don’t know is, my father and I weren’t really huge Sopranos fans. Not that we disliked it, but we didn’t huddle up every Sunday to watch the show. We watched it sporadically. I actually watched the series after it went off the air.

But I’m not stupid. You see certain things. I remember once I saw A.J. Soprano had a New Jersey Devils trash can in his room, and I was like, “OK, that’s a little strange.” If you analyze things enough, you can find coincidences here and there. I don’t get annoyed by it. It’s all fun. You’ve got to laugh with it. People enjoy speculating about this and that. I can assure you David Chase never came to our house for dinner to talk life rights. I don’t know where the rumor came from, but we smile at it. We tell people: whatever it is, it is.

THN: What has your post-Trashers life been like? How goes your career as a boxing promoter?

GALANTE: I’ve been in boxing now 10 and a half years, almost a third of my life. It’s funny, I was with the Trashers for two years and it feels like a hundred, and I’ve been in boxing 10 and a half years and it feels like a year. It makes no sense. I got into boxing by almost as much of a fluke as I did with the Trashers. I opened Champs Boxing Club in Danbury about five and a half years ago. We have a lot of professionals here, amateur fighters. What brings me the most joy with boxing is working with the youth of our community. We have a non-profit out of here. That’s what’s the most fun for me, dealing with kids.

A lot of these kids in my program here weren’t even alive when the Trashers were going on, and when this doc came out, they’re looking at me, like, “What the hell?” And I was like, “Hey, it was a different time back then.” I tell them they’re used to seeing mid-30s AJ, and they’re watching me as a 17-year-old nutjob, and they find it so funny. I actually bought a street hockey net, and we put it outside the gym, and I’m trying to get kids involved with the sport that would’ve never really thought about it. Right now there’s a little momentum with it. We’re getting a couple sticks. If there’s a couple kids making me mad, we stick ’em in goal, we take some slappers at ’em and we go from there (laughs).

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