Ten years ago, Connecticut waste-management king Jimmy Galante started a minor league hockey team and put his teenage son, A.J., in charge. The Danbury Trashers earned respect with their fists as often as their sticks. Then the FBI moved in
This is an article from the Jan. 20, 2014 issue
MIKE RUPP wore a look of confusion. As he headed to baggage claim at the small suburban airport, something didn't look right. Rupp had played two seasons in the NHL and had even scored the decisive goal for the Devils in the 2003 Stanley Cup finals. But now, in the fall of '04, with his league in the throes of a lockout, Rupp had agreed to play for a minor league club in Danbury, Conn. His agent had said a team honcho would meet him at the Westchester County (N.Y.) Airport. So why was he being greeted by this kid sporting a nascent goatee, earrings and an Allen Iverson jersey?
A.J. Galante, then a freshman at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., introduced himself as team president. He had skipped an afternoon class to pick up Rupp. "You shoulda seen Rupp," Galante recalls, laughing. "He must've thought he was on Punk'd or something."
Rupp's skepticism did not diminish when Galante piloted his blue Escalade out of the airport parking lot and promptly got lost. Recalls Galante, "It was obvious he was thinking, What did I get myself into? And how is this kid running a hockey team?"
He didn't know the half of it.
How did A.J. Galante, at 17, come to run a minor league hockey team with NHL talent—and, in turn, take a leading role in Slap Shot meets GoodFellas meets Hoosiers? By accepting an offer he couldn't refuse.
That spring, when A.J. was a senior at New Fairfield (Conn.) High, he was at a family pasta dinner when his father, James—known to all as Jimmy—casually asked, "How would you like to run a pro hockey team? I'll own it. You'll be the president. You in?"
A.J. had been a serviceable defenseman in high school and had followed the Devils, so he reckoned he knew the sport well enough. Besides, what choice did he have? "My dad always put me in sink-or-swim-type situations," he says. "I said, 'Sure,' which, to my dad, was like signing a contract. I figured it would be like a video game, controlling players and all that."
Roseanne Galante, reasonably, asked her husband and son if they had any idea what they were doing. "No," Jimmy replied. "But you got to stir it up sometimes."
Jimmy owned a stock car racing team and had long talked about becoming a sports magnate. Launching an expansion hockey team in Danbury seemed less like a vanity play than a natural progression. And Galante had the money. He was an owner of Automated Waste Disposal, a conglomerate of at least 25 trash-hauling businesses that held a near monopoly in western Connecticut and Westchester. In the late 1990s Galante had been sentenced to a year and a day in a federal prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion. Upon his release he had rebuilt his empire and now, according to The Hartford Courant, was worth more than $100 million. The United Hockey League's $300,000 franchising fee for a new team? To Galante, it was a rounding error.
The league's 13 other owners were happy for the cash infusion. Not that they just rubber-stamped Galante's application. "We did our due diligence, and they put in the proper paperwork and were professional," says Richard Brosal, then the UHL's commissioner. "Of course, if we had to do it again, would we have accepted that franchise? Let's just say hindsight is 20/20."
HAVING A son named A.J. wasn't the only reason Galante drew comparisons with Tony Soprano. They were both in waste management, and both possessed an undeniable charm that compensated for their rough edges. Says Andy Paproski, a lifelong resident of Danbury (pop. 80,893) who owns a dry cleaning business, "People thought, You know what, he may be caught up in questionable activity, but he's good to the town."
The pediatric emergency room at Danbury Hospital was named for Galante after he helped fund it. At A.J.'s high school Jimmy paid to refurbish the football stadium. When he caught wind of a local kid who couldn't afford college, he quietly wrote a tuition check. He paid the funeral costs of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq and donated $200,000 to a nonprofit that provided financial assistance to soldiers serving overseas. Then Sen. Joseph Lieberman hailed Galante as a "shining example" in the community.
So in 2004 Galante sank his money into the hockey equivalent of Double A ball. In a nod to waste management he named his team the Trashers; the logo was a garbage can armed with a hockey stick, the Zamboni resembled a trash truck and the mascot was called Scrappy. At a press conference on April 1, Galante also introduced the team's 17-year-old president, who had just bought a suit for the occasion.
Then Jimmy went about being the Jerry Jones of the UHL. He reportedly spent more than $3 million to expand the rink from a 600-seat bandbox to a 2,500-seat showplace called the Danbury Ice Arena. For himself he built a skybox equipped with a kitchenette and a flat-screen TV. While other UHL franchises were notorious for penny-pinching, the Trashers traveled in a luxe team bus. They stayed in the best hotels and ate at the best restaurants.
The league set an annual salary cap of $275,000, with a $2 luxury tax for every dollar spent above the threshold. Yet three Trashers earned more than $100,000 apiece. To circumvent the cap, Galante regularly doled out cash bonuses, gave some players exorbitant living allowances and gave others checks for housing after their allowances had already been paid. Players' wives were put on the payroll of Galante-owned companies though they performed no discernible duties. The team's actual payroll would later be estimated at $750,000.
The Galantes hired J. Todd Stirling, a son of former Islanders coach Steve Stirling, as the inaugural coach. At 32, Todd was younger than some of the players. Jimmy and A.J. also hired Tommy (T-Bone) Pomposello, a former minor leaguer, who would do everything from managing the equipment to scouting talent to helping run practice. Still, it was clear who had the ultimate authority: Before and after some games Jimmy gave the team fiery pep talks and blistering critiques.
Yet the father delegated personnel moves to the son. The teenage sports exec became an irresistible media story. (A.J. conducted one interview, for a New York Times story, while walking through his high school, where cellphones were banned; he had to hang up on the reporter when he passed a teacher in the hall.) Though he started with no contacts in the sport, often relying on Google to find the main phone numbers of other teams, A.J. made connections over the summer with agents, scouts and middlemen who could deliver that goalie from Manitoba or that playmaker from Quebec. "A.J. did his homework," says former Trashers center Drew Omicioli, "putting in research and hard work to build the team."
Then, as A.J. puts it, "it got real, real fast." With the NHL idled by a lockout that would scuttle the 2004--05 season in mid-February, the UHL became a haven for restless NHL players wanting to play to stay in shape. In his first semester of college A.J. was on the phone with agents for some of the best hockey players in the world.
The Trashers' marquee player was Brent Gretzky, Wayne's kid brother. They had scorers and skaters and playmakers and defensive stalwarts. Still, as one might expect from a teenage GM, the roster was dense with goons. "I was a big Oakland Raiders fan," says A.J. "Al Davis, he was a wild man with a team full of outlaws, and that's how I wanted to be. We knew the reality: It was hockey, but it was also entertainment. And what's more entertaining than a bunch of crazy guys getting into fights?"
FUNNY THING about Connecticut: It's one of the wealthiest states, but it also has a good many broke cities and hard-ass working-class towns. Like Danbury, once the producer of many of the world's hats. But haberdashery isn't what it used to be, and Danbury has struggled to find a new commercial base. Now it's probably best known for its massive federal prison, which housed Lauryn Hill and has been featured in Orange Is the New Black.
Residents greeted the new hockey team with considerable excitement. They weren't just happy to go to games. They also saw the Trashers as a kind of validation: Someone believes in Danbury.
Workers were still welding in seats 90 minutes before the first game, but opening night was a success: A sellout crowd of about 2,500 showed up, and Danbury beat Adirondack 3--1. The Trashers would sell out the arena regularly as fans of various ethnicities, ages and collars converged to cheer them on. The team didn't take itself too seriously—and didn't take any crap—which was pitch-perfect for Danbury. Within a few weeks the town's tattoo artists had learned to replicate the trash-can logo.
Before and after games downtown Danbury was hopping. "Before games we'd be mobbed," says Tom Devine, owner of the Two Steps Downtown Grille. "Then everyone would ask for the check so they could be there for face-off. After the game they'd come back and greet the players. It had a great economic impact on the entire downtown."
There were hundreds of fans like Greg and Brenda St. Clair, a Danbury couple who went halfway through the season to check out the new team. Brenda, confined to a wheelchair because of spina bifida, had never been to a pro hockey game. "I didn't know s--- about hockey either," volunteers Greg, a propane tank repairer. By game's end they were hooked. Soon they were regulars, and at one game they renewed their marriage vows. Brenda got tattoos of the names of her favorite players. And that wasn't all. She started playing hockey, in her wheelchair.
"We loved those fans—I mean loved," says Omicioli. "After games you'd have these blue-collar guys next to wealthy real estate developers. It was a special experience, my best in minor league hockey."
The Galantes put the rowdiest boosters behind the opposing bench. Section 102 became a subtribe whose members had nicknames like Capone and Jackass. They had their own chants and waved body bags when opposing players lost fights. The Galantes told Trashers who were suspended—invariably for fighting—to watch the games from the 102 seats. "It was loud," says A.J., "and security was very, let's just say, flexible." Soon Jimmy was renting buses to take fans to big road games. "He even bought the beer," says Paproski. "He made fans feel like they were an integral part of the team."
THESE BONDS were cemented by a brand of violence the Trashers purveyed without apology. For a team theme song, A.J. settled on "Welcome to the Jungle." The team slogan was Bad Boys Talkin' Trash. A promotional video could have doubled as a Dexter ad, with blood spatters on the ice. "Right from day one, they've said they wanted to be the bad boys of hockey, the most hated team, the Evil Empire," Marc Potvin, coach of the Adirondack Frostbite, one of the Trashers' rivals, disapprovingly told the Toronto Star in February 2005. "It comes right from the top."
The roster was constantly in flux, but it usually had more enforcers than players in need of protection. One was Rumun Ndur, a Nigeria-born Canadian who was known for his aggression. Barely two months into the season Ndur was suspended for 20 games after fighting not just opposing players but also officials and opposing coaches. Jon (Nasty) Mirasty averaged more than eight minutes of penalties over 25 games. A Cree from Saskatchewan who sometimes sported a multicolored Mohawk, he stood barely 5'10" but had a chin of granite and relished punching above his weight class. Winger Frank (the Animal) Bialowas, a former runner-up for Mr. Manitoba, was not much for impulse control either.
The Galantes admit that their favorite player was Brad Wingfield, a.k.a. Wingnut. "When we got him," A.J. recalls, "even the commissioner was like, 'I would advise against that. He's crazy.' That's all we needed to hear. Thank you." In his 56 games with the Trashers, Wingfield piled up 496 penalty minutes. But even Wingnut had nothing on Chad Wagner.
After hearing ESPN hockey commentator Barry Melrose, a co-owner of the Frostbite, trash the Trashers on the radio, an enraged A.J. called his middleman in Quebec and essentially rented Wagner for a game against Adirondack. Wagner had once set a West Coast Hockey League single-season record with 503 penalty minutes. In the Trashers-Frostbite game, however, he inflicted no real damage even though he spent three periods looking for a fight, ran up 43 penalty minutes and even made a run at the Adirondack goalie.
Wagner was apologetic, and A.J. signed him for another game against Adirondack, in Danbury on Feb. 23, which was also WWE Night. In the first period Wagner instigated a fight, and an all-out brawl broke out. Seven players were sent to the penalty box. As Wagner was escorted there, he broke free to make a dash toward the opposing bench. After taking swipes at various players, he grabbed Potvin, the Adirondack coach, and knocked him down. For this he was banned for life from the UHL. Wagner's career stats in the league: two games and 73 penalty minutes.
"The Danbury Trashers were the Syracuse Bulldogs of the movie Slap Shot," says Pomposello, the all-purpose assistant. "Every character they had, we had. Young Blood, Goon, they were all there. [The attitude was,] You're supposed to be courteous in minor league hockey? F--- you. We're here to win."
One team employee had the inspired idea of buying fresh fish and placing it in the HVAC ducts above the visiting locker room. The doors to the visiting team's penalty box were also welded together, so opponents had to fling themselves over the boards to enter the box. "I cut a foot off the visitors' bench," says Pomposello, "so they'd be all squished together." He would also wash the Trashers' jerseys in Crisco and slather Vaseline on their helmets so opponents couldn't grab hold in a fight. Before a big game a team employee might check into the visitors' hotel and pull the fire alarm. At 4 a.m. the players would be out in the parking lot, huddled in their underwear.
Playing against the Trashers was "a s--- show," said Chris Chaput, who was a center for the Elmira Jackals in 2005--06. "You had blue-collar guys banging on the glass. You'd look across the ice, and they had eight to 10 heavyweights looking for a fight. Pick your poison. We had one [enforcer], and the poor guy got challenged every shift. The game plan was 'Keep your cool and you'll get a power play,' but it didn't always work out."
In their box above center ice the Galantes heckled refs and sometimes pelted opposing players with Skittles. When A.J. sensed a fight coming, he headed down near the ice to capture it on his camcorder. "You need a wild card," says A.J., "so we decided we would beat people to submission. Like Mike Tyson in his prime."
BY JANUARY 2005 the Trashers were so riddled with suspensions that they had to suit up an assistant coach, Bobby Stearns, who suddenly became a 36-year-old pro hockey rookie. But it wasn't just the players who were punished. A.J. was fined and suspended for nearly coming to blows with an executive from another team during a game. "I got lectured a lot by Mr. Brosal, our commissioner," A.J. says. Barely 50 games into the season Stirling, the coach, was suspended for three games for failing to control his players.
The Trashers' most notorious festival of violence had taken place on Dec. 1, 2004, when they hosted the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Wings. Wingfield challenged a Kalamazoo player, Josh Elzinga, to a fight. Elzinga declined, but as Wingfield skated away, Elzinga pulled on his jersey and stuck out a foot to trip him. Wingfield's skate caught on the ice, and as he fell back his left tibia, fibula and ankle broke with such force that the crack could be heard in the stands. The rest of the game doubled as a near riot. Ndur charged the Kalamazoo bench and tried to kick a linesman. Jimmy Galante tried to get onto the ice through the penalty box. When linesman James Harper approached him, they engaged in a shouting match, and Jimmy reportedly gave Harper a fat lip. Jimmy was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault. The charge was later dropped due to a lack of clear evidence, but Brosal fined Galante an undisclosed amount and suspended Harper for five games. "You don't get involved in verbal altercations," Brosal admonished the ref.
"People would make comments: 'Aren't you afraid of him? He has ties,' " says Brosal. "Well, he's like anyone else to me. I fined him. I suspended him. I suspended his son." Although Jimmy and A.J., with their contempt for other franchises, took pride in letting proxies handle league board meetings and conference calls, Brosal says they were fine corporate citizens of the UHL: "Jimmy would get fined, and he would argue—Who do you think you are?—and five hours later the money was wired into the account. I never had one bad thing happen in my dealings with Jimmy Galante."
The players were aware that their owner was, well, connected. "Oh, everyone knew the deal," says Omicioli, "but [we] didn't care. We were paid, and everything was first class. He was a great owner." Players were welcome to stay at the Galantes' gargantuan home and, in one case, not even asked to leave after using Roseanne Galante's laptop to download Internet porn.
In return, Jimmy asked only that the players make hospital visits or speak at schools. They happily agreed. Word got around the hockey world, and soon A.J. was taking calls from players and agents—including, he says, Sean Avery's—asking for a Danbury roster spot. Says Pomposello, "Jimmy's old school. He knows how to treat people. You did right by him and were loyal, and he would do anything for you."
Occasionally, though, Jimmy betrayed a temper and turned it on his team. After one desultory performance, he entered the dressing room carting a basket of tennis balls. The players exchanged looks of confusion. After a few minutes of glaring at them in lacerating silence, Galante dumped the contents of the basket. "Listen, for all you guys who don't have a sack, I've brought enough balls for everyone," he said. "You better not lose again."
THE TRASHERS finished their inaugural season 44--29, and their second year unfolded much like the first: a lot of winning, a lot of fighting. On Dec. 3, 2005, Kalamazoo visited Danbury. Wingfield was back in uniform, having healed from the slew-footing by Elzinga that had broken his leg in several places. Predictably, Wingnut went after Elzinga, administering a considerable beating and triggering another near riot. After the game Wingfield told a local reporter, "It felt great to get back at Elzinga ... but I would have liked to have seen him leaving the ice on a stretcher or in a body bag."
Right before the league's trade deadline in March 2006, Jimmy and A.J. felt that the Trashers needed a goal scorer. A.J. acted decisively. He went online to find the main switchboard number for the Roanoke Valley (Va.) Vipers, left a message and eventually made contact with his counterpart. "I want to trade for Beauregard," A.J. said.
While David-Alexandre Beauregard was no goon, he fit into the Danbury menagerie. During a 1994 junior hockey game he was on a breakaway when he caught a high stick under his visor. Though he scored on the play, he lost sight in his left eye. The NHL bars players who are blind in one eye, so Beauregard was consigned to a career in the minors. But he would become something of a hockey Crash Davis: He would play through 2013, retiring at 37.
"You can't have him," Roanoke Valley's GM responded. "He's the only thing this team has going for it."
A.J. persisted. "Listen," he said, "my dad is coming home for dinner at 7:30, and if I don't have a goal scorer by then, I'm in big trouble." He offered Roanoke not just a pair of current Trashers but also other players in the UHL supplemental draft that summer. When Jimmy returned from work, his son greeted him with the big news.
"He can score unbelievable," A.J. said of Beauregard. "Especially for a guy with one eye."
Jimmy paused. "Lemme get this straight," he said. "You got us a guy with one eye?"
"Dad, if this guy had two eyes, he might be one of the greatest NHL players ever! He scores like it's drinking water."
In his first game for Danbury, Beauregard had a goal and an assist as the Trashers won 5--1. The fans in section 102 who had once heckled him for his one eye instantly embraced him. Catalyzed by their new scorer, the Trashers cruised through the regular season, finishing 48--17. That May they played their hated rival, Kalamazoo, in the Colonial Cup finals. "We had two defensemen hurt; otherwise we woulda won," A.J. says, shifting uneasily in his seat. "I still hate even the name Kalamazoo."
THE NEW HAVEN division of the FBI is located downtown, on the old site of the New Haven Arena, a prime hockey venue that housed minor league teams from the 1930s to the '70s. In 2003, from their desks above what was once center ice, agents began investigating Jimmy Galante.
Federal authorities had grown interested in the Connecticut waste-management industry. Wiretaps of thousands of phone calls between Automated Waste Disposal employees and representatives of other trash companies in 2004 and '05 revealed a variety of criminal activities.
Furthermore, according to authorities, in April 2005 Galante had met with Louis DeLuca, a longtime Connecticut state senator. Galante had contributed to DeLuca's campaigns—and those of many Connecticut politicians—but this was personal. DeLuca believed his granddaughter's husband, Mark Colella, had physically abused her. (Colella denies this.) Dissatisfied with the response he got from police, DeLuca went to Galante. Galante passed him a note that asked, Do you want me to have someone pay him a visit? According to authorities, DeLuca said yes and provided Colella's address.
On June 8, 2006, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office announced that Galante was the subject of an indictment that included charges of fraud, extortion, racketeering, tax fraud and conspiracy. Investigators alleged that by paying a quarterly $30,000 "mob tax" to Matthew (Matty the Horse) Ianniello—then the highest-ranking member of New York City's Genovese crime family—Galante's companies had muscled out potential competitors and charged counties and businesses inflated carting rates. A later indictment alleged that in 1992, Galante and associates conspired to set fire to a truck from a rival carting firm and kidnap a driver at gunpoint.
Thirty-two other individuals, including Matty the Horse, were charged as part of the investigation. All would plead guilty, as would Galante. During a pretrial hearing assistant U.S. attorney Michael Gustafson characterized Galante as a "manipulating, controlling, hands-on bully." As evidence that Galante was prone to violence, the prosecution played footage of him purportedly striking the official during the infamous Kalamazoo game. (The video was inconclusive.) The judge let Galante remain out of prison pending trial but put him under house arrest. Player after player came by the house to show support.
As the case proceeded, there was plenty of collateral damage. DeLuca pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of threatening. The state senator had also told an undercover agent that he would use his influence to discover anything that could hurt Galante and "blunt it as best I can." DeLuca ended up resigning from office because of the scandal.
Stirling, the Trashers' first coach, was also indicted, for abetting Galante by using the Trashers' fax machine to submit bogus salary reports to the UHL offices. (The indictment alleged that the Trashers' player payroll was in excess of $750,000, but the team reported that it hadn't gone over the UHL salary cap of $275,000.) Stirling avoided jail time after pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud.
Most dismaying to the citizenry of Danbury, the Trashers' 2006--07 season was canceled. Some of the UHL's East Coast teams were either moving to other leagues or folding. In the summer of '06, the Trashers sent 105 season-ticket holders refund checks, totaling $31,177.
Greg St. Clair, the fan who accompanied his wheelchair-bound wife to games, marked the occasion by getting a tattoo on his left calf of Scrappy the mascot shooting a puck emblazoned with the letters fbi.
Galante pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to violate the federal RICO act, one count of conspiring to defraud the IRS and one count of conspiring to commit wire fraud with the Trashers' bogus salary-cap figures. (He also forfeited his ownership in 25 trash-hauling firms.) In September 2008, U.S. District Court judge Ellen B. Burns sentenced him to 87 months in prison.
And so it was that Jimmy Galante's "property rights system," as the government called it, became one of the largest racketeering cases in U.S. history. On Oct. 15, Jimmy began serving his time. It was four years to the day from the Trashers' first game.
THE SOUND TRACK of the Starrett City Boxing Club in Brooklyn is on full blast: the thrumming of the speed bag, the grunts of a fighter absorbing shots, the whistle every three minutes to denote the end of a round. A.J. Galante, his hair buzzed to the scalp, a neatly trimmed goatee rimming his mouth, stands off to the side, his iPhone pressed to his ear.
He's 27 now. He graduated from Manhattanville with a business management degree in 2008 and bought into a New York City company that sells heating oil and diesel fuel. But his passion for sports never faded. "I'm one of those guys who lives for competition," he says. "Honestly, a lot of it was getting so close to a championship with the Trashers but not winning. I have to win a title in something. I'm not just hungry; my stomach is growling."
Three years ago A.J. began moonlighting as a boxing manager. As with hockey, he had no real connections when he started, but he figured, How hard could it be to break in? He made some contacts, hung out in gyms in the Northeast, met some promoters and trainers, and so far he has represented three fighters. Today he represents Frank Galarza (11-0-2), the New York State light middleweight champ. A.J. just landed Galarza his first TV fight, on Showtime's ShoBox series, and an endorsement deal with the apparel company Rival Boxing. "Frank would have been a hell of a Danbury Trasher," A.J. says wistfully. "People love to watch him perform. He fights with heart."
On most Saturdays, A.J. drives his white Mercedes more than three hours to White Deer, Pa., where Jimmy is serving his sentence at the Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex. For all that's happened, the kid still idolizes his father. A.J. starts innumerable sentences, "My dad always says...."
Usually so engaging and candid, A.J. picks his words with great care when discussing what he calls "the legal issues" of the last few years. When father and son get together, they talk family, business, the future. But they also swap remember-that-time-when stories about those two years they ran that crazy-assed hockey team. "I loved every player," Jimmy asserts. "It was definitely a unique group of individuals—as well as management!" (Jimmy was allowed to answer only a few questions by email sent through A.J.'s account.)
The Trashers still trigger strong responses in Danbury, too. One day in November, an employee at the Ice Arena was proud to show the building until he was told his visitor was interested in writing an article on the Trashers. "We're probably not going to want to participate," he said haltingly. Same for Mike Rupp. When the 2004--05 lockout ended, Rupp returned to the NHL and is still playing, for the Wild. An email sent to the team asking Rupp to share his recollections of the Trashers elicited this curt response: "Mike is not available for your story." But in other corners the Galantes—and the desperadoes on ice they brought to town—are still recalled fondly.
"The camaraderie with the Galante family—the laughs, the dinners—it's sad," Pomposello says, his voice catching. "Jimmy's a guest of the government, and I love that man." The Danbury Whalers of the Federal Hockey League now play downtown, and it's fair to wonder whether they would be there were it not for the hockey culture Jimmy Galante started and the arena he built. A legion of small business owners still talk about how, on Trashers game nights, downtown blazed to life. And the fans, from section 102 and beyond, still miss their team. Says St. Clair, "It still feels like I got kicked in the f------ chest."
Jimmy expects to be released this summer. He has talked casually with A.J. about getting back into sports. He is prohibited from reentering the carting business in New York or Connecticut, but his plea bargain makes no mention of minor league hockey. Asked by email whether there could be a sequel, a Danbury Trashers II, Galante responds, "Anything is possible!"
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