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  • Sunday, May 10, 1998

    By George, he's got it

    By TIM WHARNSBY -- Toronto Sun
      SPOKANE -- The Guelph Storm discovered a unique way to replace its general manager and head coach last summer.
     First, the Calgary Flames snatched Mike Kelly, who in seven years as Guelph's GM shaped the Storm into a perennial contender, to become the NHL club's scouting co-ordinator. In a search for Kelly's successor, the Storm picked the Flames pocket. Alan Millar, who ran the Flames' AHL affiliate in Saint John, N.B., became the Storm's second GM.
     Then a month or so later, the New York Rangers lured head coach E.J. McGuire away from the Storm to become the bench boss for the Rangers' new AHL farm team in Hartford. A few weeks later, veteran coach George Burnett was snapped up by the Storm. Ironically, Burnett was let go as the head coach of the Rangers' old AHL affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y.
     "It's sort of weird when you look at what transpired," Millar said. "But all the movement has worked out for the best. I believe everyone involved is pleased with their change."
     With Millar in charge and Burnett coaching, the Storm, in its third trip in four years to the OHL final, captured its first OHL championship and a trip to the 80th Memorial Cup in Spokane.
     The Storm, which opens the round-robin portion of the four-team tournament against the WHL-champion Portland Winter Hawks today at 4 p.m. (TSN), is considered a favorite to advance to the final next Sunday.
     Burnett's team has no superstars. It isn't fancy. But the OHL champions may be the most-prepared, best-coached junior team in the land.
     "The move back to junior, to Guelph has been great," Burnett said. "I had a few opportunities come up, but the Guelph job kept coming to the surface. I agree with the philosophy with the organization. There are high expectations.
     "Entering the season I knew we had some veterans that were hungry to get over the hump, a strong defence and then our goaltending, Chris Madden, stepped up to bring us here."
     Burnett knew he had the ingredients in Guelph. But the turning point came on Feb. 20 when the Storm rallied twice from two goals down to defeat the Sudbury Wolves 7-6 in overtime with five goals from Brian Willsie.
     The Storm has gone 18-2-2 since that game.
     "I knew at the beginning of the season, this team was good enough to be in the top-third of the league," Burnett said. "But after that game, there was a special feeling in the room."
     Burnett, 36, is known for producing well-prepared teams and is an excellent bench coach.
     Guelph is Burnett's sixth coaching stop in the 1990s, a path that included stints with OHL, AHL and NHL teams. And his path from junior to the NHLwas run in a sprint.
     He started the 1989-90 season working with Eric Lindros and the Oshawa Generals as an assistant coach. But 20 games into that season, Burnett was hired as a head coach to guide Keith Primeau and the Niagara Falls Thunder.
     Two seasons later, it was off to Cape Breton. There, his team captured the AHL's Calder Cup championship in 1993.
     In the strike-shortened 1995 NHL season, Burnett, at age 32, became the youngest coach in the NHL. However, he was dismissed following 35 games at the helm of the Edmonton Oilers. Part of the problem, Oilers insiders say, was that Burnett was too uptight for the laid-back club and he refused to adapt his AHL and junior methods to NHL players.
     In the end, Burnett's downfall was a public feud with Shayne Corson, whom Burnett stripped of the club's captaincy.
     'WAS I BITTER?'
     Edmonton GM Glen Sather didn't support Burnett's controversial move and as a result the native of Port Perry found himself coaching Binghamton the following year.
     Now he finds himself back in junior again.
     "Am I bitter about what happened in Edmonton? Well, not any more," Burnett said. "But I still have a lot of questions. I was told over the phone that I had been fired. There was no conversation."
     Would he like another crack at the NHL or AHL? Yes, but he wants his next chance to be the right opportunity.
     In fact, Burnett's two-year deal with the Storm has a window to return to the pro ranks. Burnett, however, seems content on staying next season in Guelph.
     He applied and was on the short list for the head-coaching job of the Canadian world junior team.
     Burnett did not grow up pining to be the next Scotty Bowman. Instead, he caught the bench bug while he attended McGill University in Montreal, where he studied phys-ed and led the CIAU in scoring in 1982-83 with 81 points in 38 games and was named to the all-Canadian team.
     During his stay at McGill, Burnett volunteered to coach at a private high school in Westmount area of Montreal. He immediately felt a passion for devising practices and running the bench.
     A few years later, Burnett was asked by a friend, Randy Hall, to help coach the Uxbridge Junior C club. The next season, he took his own Junior C team in his home town of Port Perry to the Ontario final.
     Following a stint as coach of Seneca College, he applied for a vacant Oshawa Generals head coach position and wound up being hired as an assistant for the 1989-90 season.
     But that role was short-lived as Niagara Falls came calling.
     "It happened so quickly," he said. "The first game I showed up just before the game started in Peterboro and as I got to the bench, Keith Primeau handed me a sheet of paper with the lines on it. We lost. Then we went to Kingston and Ottawa on the same road trip and lost again. I think we got bombed 26-3 on the trip. I wondered what I got myself into."
     Just 81/2 seasons later, coaching has become his passion and profession. And he has another championship on the line.

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