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."