Max Aaron’s heart belongs to figure skating these days.
But there will always be a special place there for another ice sport that was a huge part of his world for even longer.
In fact, if it wasn’t for a major back injury five years ago that changed the sporting direction of his life, the 21-year-old Aaron might not be the reigning U.S. champion. And he might not have been in London this week for the World Championships, where he finished seventh in his debut.
Hockey, you see, was the centre of Aaron’s world for almost six years — he started playing the puck game at age 3 — before he took up figure skating. He managed to balance both for about seven years until fate intervened. Lifting weights in the gym, the native of Scottsdale, Ariz., fractured two vertebrae in his back. After four months in a torso cast while his back mended, Aaron decided it was time to be a one-sport guy.
“It was upsetting, because I didn’t want to stop (playing hockey)," said Aaron. “But it made me focus on what my goals are (in skating) and really respect going out every single day, every single session. That could have been the end of my figure skating career, too.
“While it was really disappointing, I’m happy, in a sense, about what happened. I can really continue on, really focusing on every day.”
The hockey player inside Aaron hasn’t departed completely. When he analyzed his performance at his first Worlds, he came up with a familiar analogy.
“It’s just like a hard shift in hockey, where the puck’s in your zone the whole entire time. It happens,” he said. “I felt like the puck was in my zone the whole time, and I couldn’t really get it out. But I’m going to keep fighting every single time, and try to live another day. When I came here, I was going to fight for every single jump and every single spin and stretch those components as best as I could.”
Fans at the recent U.S. Championships saw Aaron punctuate his brilliant free skate — which made him a national champion — by pumping his fist, hockey goal celebration style. The same one he used when he still played the game.
Any conversation with HIM now inevitably leads to hockey. He talks passionately about the Phoenix Coyotes, his hometown NHL team (Aaron often attends Coyotes games, the tickets coming courtesy of his friend, Coyotes captain Shane Doan).
Aaron actually got into figure skating initially to improve his hockey performances. He was a diminutive player — though he’s 5-8 now, Aaron was just 5-2 and 130 pounds when he was playing midget AAA hockey in the Phoenix area — but believes his skating gave him an edge.
“It really helped my hockey, because I could move laterally so well,” said Aaron. “That really saved me, being so small ... I could really move around guys. Defenceman could be bigger, but I could just get around them. It helped me make the teams that I made.”
Eventually, Aaron would land a spot on USA Hockey’s under-14 developmental team, which included future NHLers such as Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild and Drew Shore of the Florida Panthers. Though he had to abandon the game two years later, Aaron continues to follow some of that youth team’s players.
“I still stay in contact with all my buddies who play hockey,” he said. “They really support me and whenever they have a college hockey game, I end up going to watch them. They get me tickets and whatnot. It’s pretty amazing to have that same feeling.”