They were the bad boys of hockey — a team bought by a man with mob ties, run by his 17-year-old son, and with a rep for being as violent as they were good.
Netflix's latest installment of 'Untold' sports documentaries highlights the history of the Danbury Trashers, the team bought by a mafia-connected trash kingpin and gifted to his 17-year-old son.
Untold: Crime and Penalties, the fourth and perhaps wildest installment of the brothers Maclain and Chapman Way's new series of Netflix documentary films, tells the bonkers blue-collar story of the Connecticut minor league hockey team, the Danbury Trashers, James Galante, the mafia-connected trash kingpin who purchased the team, and AJ, his 17-year-old son who stepped into the role of general manager.
"I was just as shocked as other people," AJ revealed during a Zoom chat with Thrillist about his initial reaction to his father's larger-than-life gift. "Honestly, for a good day or two, I was scared. I don't know what I'm doing, first of all. And second of all, I'm not going to be able to spend time with friends."
Galante pushed his high school wants aside to lead this crew, anyway. After all, he gave his dad his word that he would. And with no experience managing a professional sports team, AJ cobbled together a formidable hockey team—even tapping Brent Gretzky, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky's lesser-known brother, to lead the roster. In just two years, their rowdy rep led the group to earn the most penalty minutes of any team in the history of the United Hockey League, leading to a tumultuous love-hate relationship with the league.
Upon completing their second season as a full-fledged hockey crew, it all abruptly ended. James Galante, who had direct ties to the Genovese crime family, who have been cited as part of the inspiration for The Sopranos, was arrested under a massive FBI indictment and was charged with 72 counts of racketeering, extortion, and witness tampering, among other crimes. He ended up serving an eight-year sentence.
The Danbury Trashers' reign was short-lived, but their larger-than-life reputation lives on. Personalities like Tommy "T-Bone" Pomposello, AJ's cigar-smoking middle school coach-turned equipment manager—who once soaked the team's jerseys in Crisco oil so the opposing team couldn't get a firm grip on any player—and notorious brute Brad "Wingnut" Wingfield, who could hit the puck as effectively as he punched faces, cemented their place as the bad boys of hockey.
AJ's viewed as a local hero by the citizens of Danbury, Connecticut. It's a notion he humbly accepts but still isn't sure he deserves. He was a high school kid who had absolutely no idea what he was doing. What he did have were his passions: playing video games, watching professional wrestling, and, of course, hockey. For all intents and purposes, he used the experience of creating characters on-screen, and the team-building strategy of playing the NHL hockey video game series to what he did in the Danbury Arena.
"1,000,000 percent, it was like a human video game," AJ said with a laugh. "I don't like to say that because we're playing with people in real life, but that's what it was. I knew nobody. No agents. I didn't have any contacts in the league and no one really wanted to talk to us." They thought we were insane."
AJ sort of Moneyball'd it. Flying by the seat of his pants, calling in favors, and working to build a team packed to the brim with brawlers, Galante looked to his favorite wrestlers, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Undertaker, and took notes in how they, under the guidance of his hero Vince McMahon, crafted a narrative and galvanized the crowd. He studied stats and worked his team's storyline to "combine the best of both those worlds."
Blending WWE with the UHL is a disruptive idea, to be sure. And while AJ pointed out numerous times in our chat that he had no strategy or business plan to speak of, it's evident his love of building narratives around players and engaging with an audience has continued to bear fruit all these years later.
Now, as the owner and manager of Champs Boxing Club in his hometown of Danbury, AJ dismisses the connection. He's still relying on the notion that his success is "a total fluke." Chapman Way, the co-showrunner of the series and co-director of Crimes and Penalties disagrees.
"It's clear he fell in love with the drama, the entertainment value, the storytelling that goes along with wrestling figures and the theatrics of it all," Way explained to Thrillist. "AJ is one of the most gifted people I've met. He just has an inherent knack for storytelling."
That knack, even as a teenager, connected with the people of Danbury immediately. James invested in the Danbury Arena, bringing revenue to the city, and added a weekly event for the fans to look forward to. It was more than a sports game, AJ, admitted. It was like family.
"We marketed to hard-working blue-collar people," he said. "People that get up in the morning to grind every day that, maybe, don't feel too fulfilled in their jobs. We catered to people that needed something like this."
Now, with his story hitting Netflix, people the world over will get a taste of that Trashers life. It's been a decade and a half since James and AJ Galante disrupted the minor league hockey world and their story is still alive and kicking. A movie adaptation of their improbable tale, aptly titled Trashers, inspired by the Sports Illustrated article "This Hockey Mogul Was 17. Got a Problem With That?", is set to go camera up in early 2022.
At the time of this interview, AJ admitted he hadn't watched Crimes and Penalties yet. He dropped his guard momentarily and admitted it was all "a bit nerve-wracking." After all, how would his fighters react to seeing the home movies he submitted from his childhood? "Oh, God, You want me in my nerdy glasses?" he laughed. "These kids in the gym are gonna kill me."
After a beat, he dropped the fight promoter bravado and said humbly, "Hopefully, it turns out well. Hopefully, people get a kick out of it."