George Burnett has been a rather-successful coach over an Ontario Hockey League bench career that began in 1989. But it was the 57-year old Burnett’s work as the general manager (and coach) of the Guelph Storm that led it to a stunning OHL championship of this spring.
Starting with the pre-season acquisition of overage (1998 birth year) defenseman Jack Hanley from the reigning OHL champion Hamilton Bulldogs, Burnett made no less than eight major trades that assisted Guelph on this year’s title run to glory.
Others that Burnett acquired leading to the January 10 trade deadline were Team Canada forwards Nick Suzuki and MacKenzie Entwistle, forwards Zachary Roberts, Domenic Commisso and Pavel Gogolev and defensemen Sean Durzi, Fedor Gordeev and Markus Phillips.
Along with Suzuki and Entwistle, Phillips played for Team Canada at the 2019 World Junior Hockey Championships.
Through the many meaningful trades that Burnett triggered, he moved out five players, including former Storm first rounders Ryan Merkley and Tag Bertuzzi, who had both worn out their welcome in Guelph.
There were also a multitude of future draft picks exchanged as Burnett built the Storm into an OHL champion for this 2018-2019 season. In all, Burnett traded 17 future draft picks (albeit, some of them conditional) and acquired eight in return.
Burnett certainly did his homework before making the many moves that he did.
For example, both Hanley (with the Belleville Bulls and Hamilton) and Gordeev (with Hamilton and the Flint Firebirds) had previously played for Burnett.
And of course, star players with character, such as Suzuki, Entwistle, Durzi and Phillips, were well known to Burnett.
Then there was the fact that Hanley and Entwistle both had previous OHL championship experience as teammates in Hamilton last year — and are both known for their leadership qualities.
Of note, one player who Burnett refused to move was left winger Keegan Stevenson, a big 2000 birth-year youngster who played his minor hockey in Sault Ste. Marie.
When Burnett was making the trade with Flint for aforementioned, veteran defenseman Fedor Gordeev, Firebirds general manager Barclay Branch pushed hard to have Stevenson included in the deal.
But in the end, Burnett would not give up Stevenson and instead sent an extra high draft pick to Flint for Gordeev.
At any rate, and to be sure, it was a remarkable run for Guelph on the way to this year’s OHL championship.
The Storm finished fourth in the Western Conference regular-season standings and its 90 points were good for only eighth place in the overall OHL log.
By comparison, the Ottawa 67’s, who Guelph defeated in the OHL championship series, finished first overall during the regular season with 106 points.
But it was the comeback kids from Guelph who became the improbable champions of the OHL. Because it was against all odds that Guelph is representing the OHL at this year’s Memorial Cup tournament.
The title was finally earned when Guelph ousted favoured Ottawa in Game 6 of the finals, scoring a home-ice victory that gave the Storm the best-of-seven championship series four matches to two.
As it had done in the previous two playoff series against the Saginaw Spirit and London Knights, Guelph overcame big deficits before coming out on top.
In the Western Conference semi-finals against no. 1 seed London, no. 4 seed Guelph lost the first three games of the series only to Storm back and win the next four.
Then, in the Western Conference finals, Guelph spotted no. 2 seed Saginaw a three games to one lead before winning the next three to again take the series by a 4-3 margin.
Finally, it was the coup de grace in the OHL finals against Ottawa, the no. 1 seed from the Eastern Conference and the first-place overall finishers from the regular season.
Ottawa won the first two games of the series but it was Guelph that won the next four to take the OHL championship set four games to two.
Meanwhile, back to Burnett, this appearance at the 2019 Memorial Cup is the third for the veteran OHL coach and general manager.
In his first go-round with the Storm, Burnett took the Storm to the big dance in 1998.
Then 10 years later, in 2008, Burnett piloted the aforementioned, erstwhile Belleville Bulls into the Memorial Cup event as their coach and GM.
Meanwhile, this time around, as Burnett’s work as general manager played a major role in Guelph’s OHL championship season, so did his coaching.
Having changed with the times through the many years that he has spent manning OHL benches, Burnett’s experience, wisdom and his ability to adapt to a given situation during a game were on prominent display throughout this spring’s four-round, 24-game playoff charge that began with an opening-round sweep of the Kitchener Rangers.
In particular, Burnett’s experience clearly showed during the Western Conference finals when matched up against Saginaw’s rookie head coach Chris Lazary.
In Games 5, 6 and 7 of the series — all won by Guelph — it was as though Burnett was playing chess and Lazary was playing checkers.