The news release naming the Vegas Golden Knights’ new director of sports performance hit email inboxes seven weeks ago, but when Jay Mellette called for an interview Monday afternoon he was, technically speaking, just four days on the job. Transitioning from his old gig had taken much time and attention, he explains, mostly because he had been overseeing an immediate staff of 50 strong, plus the 1,300 others worldwide for whom they were charged with caring.
Put another way, one does not simply leave Cirque du Soleil without implementing a proper succession strategy.
To those in the wider hockey world, Mellette’s hiring in late January might’ve struck as truly head-turning—even for the NHL’s newest expansion franchise, even for the first major-professional sports team in Sin City’s history. Don’t worry, though. He understands. In 1997, Mellette attended his first Cirque show while working as head athletic trainer for the MLS’ Colorado Rapids. As he left the theater, he remembers thinking, “I wonder if they even have any sports medicine staff?”
They do. It’s massive, and rightfully so. “They’ve got the biggest athletic team in town,” says Murray Craven, an ex-NHL forward and the Golden Knights’ senior vice president. “That’s a lot of stress on a lot of bodies.”
Aerialists, trampolinists, dancers, contortionists, trapeze catchers, trapeze fliers, teeterboard catchers, teeterboard fliers…as director of performance medicine of the entire company, Mellette oversaw a veritable army responsible for ensuring 20-plus shows hummed at their healthiest.
And so it is with confidence that Mellette can tell the wider hockey world, “I think I’m the one who views myself as the least out-of-the-box as anybody. I know what we did at Cirque du Soleil. I know what we provided, the standard we set.”
In a way, Mellette’s departure from the acrobatic world after almost 13 years at Cirque happened by accident. Early last fall, seeking to build contacts around the city, Craven had met someone on Cirque’s corporate side who encouraged him to call Mellette and ask about medical talent in the marketplace. “He knows everybody,” Craven was told. Over beers at Miller’s Ale House on Las Vegas Boulevard, located three miles south off-Strip from the Golden Knights’ home rink at T-Mobile Arena, the two talked for hours, exchanging ideas.
A job wasn’t on the table, not yet. First, Mellette invited Craven to check out “Love,” the Beatles-themed performance housed at The Mirage. “I set up the royal tour,” Mellette says. Starting during pre-show warm-ups, Craven spent the next six hours tailing Mellette through an out-of-sight operation more intricate than most audience members could imagine. “He saw how we did our prep work and our treatment loads and our conditioning,” Mellette says. “Then we went backstage during the show and I explained how we do emergency response. We brought in one of the coaches and walked through how we make adjustments for injuries and workload.”
Before long, Craven and McPhee were telling each other, “Maybe we should just ask Jay if he’d like to join us.”
To Mellette, the chance to build something new from scratch proved irresistible, much like it had McPhee and others on the Golden Knights' ever-growing roster of staffers. “In your career you only get a couple of shots at that,” Mellette says. “The stars were aligned.” After serving for two-plus years in the United States Air Force, including an eight-month deployment during Operation Desert Storm, he first became a student athletic trainer while studying at Florida State. Then he took a job at the University of Colorado under a head athletic trainer named David Burton (for whom Mellette later returned the favor by hiring at Cirque), before bouncing between jobs across the state, including with the Rapids.
In March 2004, Mellette joined KÀ, a Cirque show at the MGM Grand, and began vaulting up the ladder. Until recently, he was overseeing more than 50 athletic trainers and physiotherapists, hailing from seven different countries. “The most diverse sports medicine team I’ve ever known anywhere in the world,” he says.
Assuming McPhee and his hockey operations staff don’t stick to purely continental choices during their June expansion draft, Mellette will soon oversee an equally multicultural roster of players with, on some level, similar rhythms and goals. “In Cirque du Soleil,” he says, “every day is game day.” Plus he has the benefit of staying close to the shows—not to mention UFC's new sprawling training complex located across town. "I’ve got a big vision of doing knowledge exchange," Mellette says. "Hey, the UFC and Cirque du Soleil and the Golden Knights, we’re not competing against each other. We can complement our knowledge."
But all that seems far down the road. For now Mellette remains in what he calls “idea mode.” He just began poring through the NHL’s medical handbook, a "road map" of policies and procedures. He’s still setting up his team-issued cell and laptop, and has been working out of a trailer at the construction site of the Golden Knights’ practice facility, located in suburban Summerlin. “We’ll have a couple more athletic trainers who have more of a hockey background and will be on the bench,” McPhee says, “but Jay will take the lead and help us build the whole department.”
It is, after all, exactly why Mellette made that jump. Now watch him stick the landing.