George Burnett rode back into Guelph the other day, almost 20 years after coaching the Storm to the 1997-1998 Ontario Hockey League championship.
A two-time OHL coach-of-the-year who has spent almost half of his life in the Ontario league, Burnett has been entrusted with overseeing the ongoing rebuild of the Storm, which has missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.
The 55-year old Burnett — he was just a youngster when he first became a head coach in the OHL with the erstwhile Niagara Falls Thunder back in 1989 — has taken on the dual role of coach and general manager in Guelph.
As a player, Burnett skated the left wing for the London Knights for three seasons. As a head coach, he has spent 20 seasons behind OHL benches as the signal caller in first Niagara Falls and then Guelph before many more years with the Oshawa Generals, Belleville Bulls and Hamilton Bulldogs that included added duty as the GM.
He spent the 2016-2017 season as GM-only of the Flint Firebirds and along with rookie head coach Ryan Oulahen, oversaw a transformation from a lowly team that missed the playoffs in 2015-2016 to one that finished well above the .500 mark in the tough Western Conference. Flint then lost to the no. 2 seed Soo Greyhounds in the first round of this spring’s playoffs.
Now, as someone who has also coached in the National Hockey League and American Hockey League, Burnett — who has a degree in education from reputable McGill University — is back in Guelph. And back behind the bench after spending last season removed from coaching.
Despite all of his successes as a coach, Burnett said he continues to learn about that aspect of his profession.
“Being the GM and not coaching this past season in Flint allowed me to step back and watch coaches like Ryan (Oulahen) and others in the league and learn a few things and keep up in a game that is always changing,” Burnett told HockeyNewsNorth.com. “As a coach, you are always learning and adapting.”
Though he initially had discussions with Guelph ownership about just replacing the retiring Mike Kelly as GM, Burnett said those talks went to another level when Jarrod Skalde was released as head coach of the Storm earlier this month.
“After a lot of soul-searching and discussion with my family, I decided to take the dual role in Guelph,” Burnett relayed. “It was not an easy decision because I enjoyed my time in Flint and liked what we were able to do there.
“But there is something that drew me back to Guelph and the Storm. I was only here for one year and yes we did win a championship and that was great but I always thought that it would be nice to be back here again. I have always felt a special connection to Guelph,” he added.
Burnett and his wife reside in the Oshawa area and being in Guelph puts him a lot closer to home than when he worked for Flint. On another family note, Burnett’s daughter Hanna lives just a few miles from Guelph in Waterloo where she is the coach of the women’s lacrosse team at Wilfrid Laurier University.
“She is also a big hockey fan,” Burnett said of his 26-year old daughter, who in her lacrosse-playing days as a goalie at Wilfrid Laurier, won an Ontario University Athletics most-outstanding-player award.
On to the task at hand as coach and GM of the Storm, Burnett sees progress in the seasons ahead.
“First of all, I do think that it is clear that championship teams are built and take a little time,” Burnett began. “It’s been a couple of tough seasons, I understand that and we’re looking for progress and making sure that we take a big step forward in a lot of ways this coming season. There are some really strong pieces of the puzzle in place.”
A modest individual who mostly shies away from talking about himself, Burnett said hard work is something of which there is no substitute.
“Nobody’s going to outwork us and in that regard as coach and GM I have to set the example there,” he pointed out. “Whether you’re a scout or you’re in the office or someone on our coaching staff, we are not going to be outworked.”
STORM SAULT CREW
The Storm has a strong connection to Sault Ste. Marie.
Player-wise, 1998 birth-year left winger Nic Sicoly and 1999 birth-year defenseman Nolan Makkonen are both on the Guelph roster. Sicoly has played two full seasons with the Storm while Makkonen moved up to Guelph midway through the 2016-2017 campaign from the Soo Eagles of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
And just recently, Guelph signed 2000 birth-year centre Keegan Stevenson, who played in the NOJHL for the Soo Thunderbirds this past season as a sixth-round pick of the Storm from the 2016 OHL draft.
Also with the Storm as its Sault Ste. Marie-based, northern Ontario scout is veteran bird-dog Jimmy Mancuso.
PHOTO: New Guelph Storm coach-general manager George Burnett.