Advertising guru and broadcaster Terry O'Reilly was on CBC Radio recently, and he was telling a story. It was the spring of 2006 and the Miami Heat were leading the Dallas Mavericks three games to two in the NBA championship series. The challenge for Heat coach Pat Riley was a mental one. Games 6 and 7 would be played on the Mavericks' home floor, and Riley didn't want there to be a Game 7 at all. So, how could he pitch to his players the urgency of winning Game 6, and have them believe him and execute the plan? Simply, as it turned out. He held a team meeting before the crucial road trip and he told the players to pack for one night. One suit, he said, would be all they'd need because they'd be back home to celebrate the championship after Game 6. Well, the players, expecting strategy and platitudes, bought what the coach was selling. They followed through and won the title in six.
Pat Riley was a great professional coach because he knew a simple truth. The coach isn't just the guy who decides the lineup and plans in-game strategy, he's also a salesman. Given a lineup of rich, entitled men to coach, he didn't have to worry much about talent. The players he coached wouldn't have been in the NBA without it. His job was to motivate those talented, rich, entitled men to push their physical and emotional limits in a collaborative effort to win basketball games. In other words, he had to find the message to which they'd respond, then he had to pitch it with all the savvy of a Madison Avenue ad executive. He became an expert at the elevator pitch.
The elevator pitch, in advertising, is the line you take if you have to win someone over to your way of thinking in the time it'd take to travel a few floors in an elevator with them. It has to be convincing, original, powerful and brief. It's a useful approach for a coach because it's a straightforward message, simple to convey and to understand. It becomes a rallying cry with repetition.
The Canadiens Michel Therrien finds himself in the kind of situation that separates the good coaches from the jokers right now. With his team down two home losses against the Tampa Bay Lightning, including a hot-headed penalty-filled disaster of a Game 2, Therrien has got to pitch his team a message that will make players buy into what he's selling. After Game 1, he blamed the heartbreaking double-OT loss on a missed offside. He wasn't able to pull the team together and regroup after that, and the Game 2 bench was in disarray, with morale falling as the chance of victory disappeared. Now he's got one chance before the series is all but blown. The x's and o's don't matter. It's too late to fix the power play. Line shuffling has proven to be ineffectual. It's time for his elevator pitch.
The question is, does Therrien have it in him? This is the point when players are starting to panic and doubts are creeping in. It's the time when "be first on puck," "be 'ard on puck" and "skate, skate!" aren't cutting it. The team has heard those exhortations ad nauseam and now they need inspiration. Perhaps, somewhere deep down, Therrien has a Jacques Demers-like speech he can deliver, convincing the players through his raw passion that he truly believes they're going to come back. Not that they can come back, but that they will. Or perhaps he doesn't
The thing with a good elevator pitch is, even if it turns out the Habs are so inferior a team to the Lightning they really didn't have a chance, they can still pull together and play with dignity and discipline. Perhaps they'll even find the motivation and the breaks to win. Either way, if a coach is to have a purpose and prove his mettle, this is his moment. Therrien needs to pitch his butt off and he'd better hope he still has enough respect in the dressing room to have his players buy into the message. Even if most of us believe he's probably no Pat Riley.