Jim Burton loaded the boys in the car for a Saturday morning drive around Augusta, with no particular destination in mind. He never really took the time to plan something fun in advance, since he never really counted on spending a leisurely afternoon with his family on the first Saturday in April.
Not that Burton wasn't content with the opportunity to spend a day with his wife, Sandra, and the boys, 9-year-old Kel and 6-year-old Ryan. After all, he had only seen his family twice since just after New Year's, when he left their home in Fort Wayne, Ind., to embark on the next phase of his hockey career.
But Burton didn't take over in January as coach of the Augusta Lynx expecting such an early start to the off-season. When Sandra and the boys arrived last week for spring break, he was resigned to the fact that it might be the last time he would see them for a while.
"I thought we'd be getting ready to play South Carolina right now," Burton said, referring to a date with the South Carolina Stingrays in the East Coast Hockey League playoffs. "And I really believed if we could get past that series, that anything could happen."
Instead, the Lynx made an abrupt exit from the postseason with a loss to the New Orleans Brass in the Southern Conference Wild Card series last week. Which left Burton wondering where the road might take him, both Saturday afternoon and beyond.
"Nothing really is happening yet; there's been a bit of a discussion, but nothing definite," said Burton about the possibility of returning to the Lynx next season. "I certainly like Augusta. I think it's a great franchise and a great city. The rink is good, everything here is pretty good. It's a no-brainer for me.
"I'd like to come back," he added. "But it all depends really on what direction they want to go in. They haven't said something like `Hey, we really want you back' yet. So I'm really not sure what to expect."
While Lynx owners and general manager Paul Gamsby have yet to formally sit down with Burton to discuss next season, bringing him back would also seem like a no-brainer.
After taking over the team after the firing of Scott MacPherson Dec. 31, Burton guided the Lynx to a 21-13-3 record. Augusta finished 36-29-7 and clinched a playoff berth for the third straight year.
The 39-year-old Burton took over a team in complete disarray, a club with glaring holes in its defensive systems and suffering from a general lack of leadership and direction.
Burton, who went 104-79-25 and made the postseason in each of his three seasons as a coach in the Western Professional Hockey League, solidified the Lynx defensively while maximizing his talent up front, transforming them into one of the most explosive offensive teams in the league.
Augusta led the 25-team league with 457 assists and 716 points, while its 3.60 goals per game average was good for second behind Toledo, which finished with the league's top offense, averaging 3.64 goals per contest.
The Lynx had two players finish in the top 10 in the league in scoring for the first time in franchise history, led by captain Scott Morrow (sixth with 86 points on 33 goals and 53 assists) and center Paul Vincent (10th with 83 points on 34 goals and 49 assists).
Burton also engineered the Jan. 29 trade with Arkansas that yielded Vincent, who scored 18 of his 34 goals in 26 his games with the Lynx.
Thanks, in part, to Burton's offensive style that centered on creativity, Jonas Soling finished with a franchise-high 41 goals, good for third in the ECHL. He also brought out the best in rugged defenseman Wes Swinson, whose career-high 47 points was 14th in the league in scoring among defenseman, the first Lynx blueliner to end up in the top 15.
"He did such a great job with the defensemen, but Jim is also a very offensive-minded coach," Vincent said. "I'd like to see him get a chance to come in here next year and get the players and the team he wants. He's never had much to work with before, and I think now he can put together a great team if he gets the chance."
No doubt Burton will get that chance somewhere next season, regardless of whether or not he returns to the Lynx. His proven track record as a coach and player could open several doors, either as a head coach in the ECHL or as an assistant with a team in a higher league.
As a player, Burton was one of the most heralded defensemen in the International Hockey League during the 1980s. He is the only player to win three straight defensemen of the year honors in the IHL, and he also played for the Austrian National Team in the 1994 Olympics in Norway.
As a coach, Burton was an assistant with the Hershey Bears of the American League and the Phoenix Roadrunners in the IHL. He led the WPHL's Austin Ice Bats to a 35-23-11 mark as a rookie head coach in 1997-98, then moved on to the WPHL's expansion Arkansas GlacierCats in 1998-99, leading them to a 69-56-14 record and a trip to the playoffs in each of his two seasons.
Arkansas folded after the 1999-2000 season when the ECHL's RiverBlades came to Little Rock and Burton took over as head coach of the expansion Tucson Scorch. The team folded before ever playing a game.
For now, Burton is leaving his options open, but he is making no secret about his desire to return to the Lynx next season. Although his family maintains their permanent residence in Fort Wayne, Burton says he and his wife would love to make Augusta their home.
"The possibility of moving up to a higher league as an assistant could be there, but I'm not sure I want to," said Burton, who has worked in past off-seasons as a golf pro in Fort Wayne and has played in several professional mini-tour events.
"I'm not sure what I want to do just yet. I really enjoyed this year in the ECHL. I had a half a year here, and I would like to have a full year in it, a chance to start from the beginning and to recruit and add some parts to the team."
While the Lynx have a history of dragging their feet when it comes to hiring a coach, Gamsby is expected to move quickly this time. It wasn't until early June when the team and coach Dan Wiebe decided to part ways after contract negotiations stalled, and by the time MacPherson was hired in late June, several recruiting opportunities had already passed them by.
Some of the players said they want to see Burton return in 2001-02 as well.
"He came in and he was a leader for us at a time we needed a leader," said veteran forward Louis Dumont. "I think he wants to come back and think he'll have a lot of say in bringing in more of the guys he wants, or if he wants to keep the same guys. It's up to Paul Gamsby now."
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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