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Max Aaron brings hockey mind-set to figure skating

Ex-hockey player Max Aaron was a most unlikely US national champion last year. Now he is hoping for a shot at the Olympics.

Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images

Ex-hockey player Max Aaron was a most unlikely US national champion last year. Now he is hoping for a shot at the Olympics.

From time to time, to scratch the itch, he’ll put on the hockey skates and join a pickup game.

“Of course, I’m going to be smart not to go behind the net and take a puck to the head, but it’s one of my passions,” Max Aaron says. “Just to get out there and feel the wind through my hair and have that stick in my hands . . .”

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After he is finished with figure skating, Aaron would love to enroll at Michigan and join the Wolverine varsity as a walk-on. That was his original plan before he broke his back at 16 and opted instead for the aerial path that leads to Olympus.

“I thought going into this year, is making the Olympic team possible?” says the 21-year-old native of Scottsdale, Ariz., who’ll begin defense of his men’s crown Friday at the US Figure Skating Championships at TD Garden, when younger sister Madeline will be competing for the junior pairs title. “I spoke with my coach, I spoke with some US figure skating officials, and it is definitely possible.”

If Aaron could leap up from the pack and become the most unexpected men’s champ since Rudy Galindo, as he did in Omaha last year, why couldn’t he grab one of the two spots on the team for next month’s Winter Games in Sochi? His skates may have toe picks now, but Aaron still has a helmeted mind-set.

“No fear, I’ll tell you that,” he declares. “There is nothing that’s going to hold me back. Every time I step on the ice I’m not afraid to fail. That’s my biggest asset.

“Whether I win or lose, I’m going to have a good time and I’m going to give full effort every time. That’s what I take with me to every event. Nothing’s going to stop me.”

Aaron was a small guy in a big guy’s sport when he led his youth hockey league in both points and penalty minutes as a pint-sized pest.

“Scouting report?” says Aaron. “Here it is: Max is a very fast, smart player. I don’t want to say that he needs to be more aggressive but he needs to get a little more crazier in the corners and handle the big guys better.”

Not that Aaron was hesitant about sticking his nose in against beefier rivals.

“I got into a couple of fights where I got my you-know-what handed to me,” he recalls. “That hurt, but you learn from it.”

Aaron, who is 5 feet 8 inches, reminded observers of Nathan Gerbe, Boston College’s persistently productive little big man who now skates for the Carolina Hurricanes as the NHL’s smallest player. Aaron might well have played for a Division 1 school had he not fractured two vertebrae in 2008.

“My back hurt the entire season,” says Aaron, who knew that his parents would have stopped him from playing had he told them. “My last game, I told some of my buddies that I’ve known for years and years. They said, ‘No, you’re fine, next year’s team is going to be amazing.’ I said, ‘I think this is it.’ ”

Aaron ended up in a body cast for four months and spent a year out of the rink, but the thought of abandoning the ice left him cold, so he simply changed sports and skates.

“Some people said, why are you going out there and doing it again?” Aaron remembers. “Are you crazy? You can break your back.”

A model on site

It wasn’t as if Aaron didn’t know his way around a lutz or a loop. He’d been skating since he was 9, had won a US juvenile title and an intermediate medal, and had been in the mix in the novice ranks. The issue was whether it made sense to go down a road that would lead him away from college, to move up to Colorado Springs and train seriously.

“My parents said, ‘If you mess up, you’re going home and figure skating is done. Either you want it or you don’t want it,’ ” Aaron recalls. “I told them, ‘I really want to do this. I want to make my name and I want to see how far I can go in this sport before I give it up.’ ”

So he went to the Broadmoor to work with coach Tom Zakrajsek in the same venue where Canada’s Patrick Chan was training to become a world champion.

“Just seeing how he matured, how he peaked and won his three titles, that was really neat,” Aaron says. “I became really close with him. We used to hang out a lot, make dinners on weekends, go to movies.”

Chan, who was little more than a year older, became his benchmark.

“This is a world champion, and where am I?” Aaron said he would ask himself. “If he’s doing two quads, I’m going to do two quads. If he’s doing clean programs, I better be doing clean programs. This is what it takes to be the top guy like him.”

Within a couple of years, Aaron was junior national champion, but after finishing eighth in his senior debut in 2012, he considered hanging up the skates and enrolling at Arizona State until his mother urged him to give it one more season. It turned out golden as Aaron vaulted above everybody else to claim the crown.

“Everyone was afraid last year,” says Aaron, who’d been fourth after the short program. “I was the only one who did two quads.

“They’re saying, ‘You’re risking a lot.’ No, I’m not, because I trained every day so hard to get those quads down, so in the moment when I stepped on that ice, I was ready to compete.

“That’s the thing that put me apart from all the other men, because they backed down because they’re afraid of falling. I’m not afraid of falling or failing because I’ve failed many times and I learned from them.”

Something to prove

Being flattened hundreds of times on a hockey rink had crossover benefits.

“There were many times that I took such a big hit that I was dazed, I’m not going to lie,” says Aaron. “I’d see black but I’m still looking for the puck. Where’s the play going? I’m going to keep going.

“Same thing in figure skating. If I take a hard fall, I’m going to get up and I’m going to do the next jump.”

Aaron’s problem, critics said, was that he performed like a hockey player in a costume, that he was more Bucyk than Button.

“People came up to me after Nationals saying I didn’t deserve to be a champion, I didn’t deserve to get the marks I did,” he says. “That was very frustrating, right? Everyone’s saying, ‘Don’t listen to that,’ but I’m going to listen to it because I want to prove to them that I can do more than jump.”

So for this season, Aaron switched from Daft Punk to Perez Prado for his short program (“something light and outgoing”) and from “West Side Story” to “Carmen” for his long.

“I’m not going to let anyone tell me that I can’t perform, that I’m not artistic,” he says. “I’m there to prove them wrong.”

The recent Grand Prix season, in which Aaron was third at Skate America and seventh at the NHK Trophy in Tokyo, was a blunt body check.

“Every time I watch a performance, I’m disgusted with how I’ve skated,” he says. “It’s very hurtful for me.”

What he and his support team concluded was that trying three quads in the long program was killing the rhythm and flow.

“It wasn’t a performance,” Aaron says. “It was, ‘Let’s see how many jumps Max can do.’ ”

So Aaron excised one and worked with choreographer Lori Nichol to make the program more fluid.

“It constantly moves,” he says.

If Aaron can be near the top in the short and skate a clean long with two quads, he’ll likely get a ticket to the Games.

That’s his star-spangled dream, but there’s also a maize-and-blue fantasy that involves Ann Arbor.

“Finishing with a game of college hockey,” Aaron says. “Just one game in a packed arena under the lights. That would be really something special.”

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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