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NHL's new expansion team turns to Cirque du Soleil for help

Published Mar. 23, 2017

When the NHL's newest franchise went looking for a keen, energetic mind to help oversee the training and performance of its players, it did not confine its search to conventional hockey circles.

Instead, the Vegas Golden Knights, who will be the first major professional sports team in Las Vegas when they begin their inaugural season in October, went in a drastically different direction. They named Jay Mellette, a longtime Las Vegas resident, as their director of sports performance and head athletic trainer.

Although Mellette acknowledges he has much to learn about hockey, not too many people in the NHL — or any pro sports league, for that matter — have such a versatile and colorful background in sports medicine.

Mellette was in the Air Force and was a member of the Colorado Rapids' medical staff during Major League Soccer's initial season, in 1996. But he has spent the past 12 years with Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian entertainment company known for producing some of the world's most ambitious and elaborate performances.

Working most recently as Cirque du Soleil's director of performance medicine, Mellette led 20 sports medicine teams assisting 1,300 athletes, including Mongolian contortionists, South American aerialists, Scandinavian tumblers and Chinese martial arts experts.

That variety of athletes presented Mellette with an even greater variety of potential mishaps and injuries.

Bernard Petiot, Cirque du Soleil's vice president for casting and performance, said, "The kind of business we're doing, we're taking risks and we're exposing ourselves to human risk that can be life-threatening."

Working with such a diverse collection of elite athletes, Mellette, 47, was forced to think outside the parameters of conventional sports medicine.

"Contortionists are interesting," he said. "They fold themselves in half and then they come in the next day and say, 'I have back pain.'

"If I'm going to integrate this person and they do handstands on someone's head, there's no return-to-play protocol for doing headstands. That's not in the literature. You're not going to the British Journal of Sports Medicine and getting return-to-play protocol on head balances. How do you take your understanding of anatomy and biomechanics and physiology and integrate that into a physical requirement you've never been exposed to?"

These were the types of questions that caught the attention of Murray Craven, a former NHL player who is a senior vice president for the Golden Knights. Looking for a Las Vegas resident who could introduce him to the local medical network, Craven got in touch with Mellette.

Over the course of a few meetings, Mellette impressed upon Craven his approach to providing state-of-the-art athletic care and exploring innovations in sports science and physical therapy.

"North America is not the center of the universe for sports medicine," Mellette said. "Some of the work being done in Australia that they do with workload management and monitoring, and some of the work being done with injury prevention and screening in Europe — there is good stuff going on everywhere. Are we going out into the world and getting information?"

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Mellette's appreciation for the global spectrum of sports medicine emerged after he arrived at Cirque du Soleil.

His first job for the company was with Ka, a Las Vegas show built around a meticulously choreographed arrangement of acrobats, puppeteers, martial artists and pyrotechnics, set upon a series of moving platforms and lifts. Mellette found himself working with a group of martial arts experts who had just arrived from China.

"We were doing 476 shows a year," Mellette said. "How do you teach someone who has never done a dead lift why it's important for them to do a dead lift when you can't communicate with them? I learned a lot about working with international coaches and international athletes at Cirque du Soleil. You look at hockey, and hockey is an international sport."

Roughly three months after their first meeting, Craven introduced Mellette to Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, who quickly offered him a job. But it was not easy for Mellette to leave Cirque du Soleil, where he had spent more than a decade and met his wife, Stephanie, a trapeze artist.

"There was a lot of circus in my life. So taking the leap to leave the circus was a professional decision, but it was a really big personal decision as well," Mellette said.

Listening to McPhee and Golden Knights owner Bill Foley, Mellette said, "you believe that something special is happening."

Before beginning to assemble a staff with the Golden Knights, Mellette spent his first week with the team studying the NHL's medical handbook, effectively familiarizing himself with the standards and practices for a sport he is still learning.

"I need to understand the basics," Mellette said. "It's not light reading."

In the meantime, Cirque du Soleil executives in Montreal found themselves looking to fill the prominent hole left by Mellette — and establishing bragging rights.

"I have to say it's a big loss," Petiot said. "I'm quite sure he will be quite contributive to the Golden Knights. I said, 'We'll stay friends as long as you don't beat the Canadiens.' "

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