Wayne Gretzky. Davidson had never seen a hockey game until he cofounded the World Hockey Association in 1971. Before the league began play in '72, three potential franchise owners visited California from the hockey Holy Land, Canada. The idea was to get better acquainted with the 37-year-old Davidson and his 45-year-old colleague, Dennis Murphy—who had founded the ABA—by attending a Los Angeles Kings game with them.
"I'll never forget," says Murphy. "We're all sitting there in a row, the game is about to start, and the linesman goes to center ice and is about to drop the puck when Gary says, 'What are they doing?' "
Wild Bill Hunter, a profane, white-haired frontiersman who conjured images of Yosemite Sam, looked at Murphy and barked, "Who the hell is this guy?"
"Later," says Murphy, "Gary would fall asleep during the game. But in fairness to him, he never purported to know anything about hockey."
Well, he purported to know something. When the WHA named Camille Henry, a former star with the New York Rangers, to be coach of its New York Raiders, Davidson made the announcement at a press conference in Manhattan. He confidently began, "I'd like to welcome Henry Camille...."
As waves of laughter washed up to the podium, Davidson reddened like one of his prototype pucks. "No, no," he pleaded with the media hyenas, desperate to correct his mistake. "I mean...Hank. Hank Camille!"
The whole point was to make money, and to make money you had to make headlines, and for this pursuit Gary Davidson was perfectly appointed. He possessed what imaginative reporters called "Robert Redford good looks," and his habitual speech impediment magically evaporated when the camera lights came on. Davidson was a Skippy-smooth pitchman in a new era of sound bites, an era when there was no government undertaking, however massive, that could not be expressed in an insipid little slogan: Think metric. Whip inflation now. Fifty-five saves lives....
In both the WHA and the WFL, Davidson personally took a franchise as his own, for free, as if by birthright. He then sold them immediately: In the WFL he got $690,000 for his franchise, which became the Philadelphia Bell, whose offices routinely fielded complaints from citizens unhappy with their telephone service. Davidson would also draw a hefty salary to run the leagues from his law office—that is, once he had sold enough franchises to form a league.
Along the way Davidson was abetted by his old friend and law partner Don Regan, and by Murphy, a former marketing executive and former mayor of Buena Park, Calif., an Irishman from County Flimflammery with a winning smile and a world of energy. Together the trio played magnificently the egos of small-town, big-money megalomaniacs throughout the continent, men who simply couldn't resist owning their own pro team.
"Back then there were guys who had made millions making widgets in Omaha, but the only guys who knew them were maybe their bankers and the guys at the country club," says Grandi. "But with a sports franchise, they recognized an opportunity to be known in L.A. or Detroit. Maybe 90 percent of them were flakes, but...."