Can a Former Hockey Player Give Figure Skating a Kick in the Ice?

Max Aaron put down the pads and learned how to skate like a star – now, he hopes to score at the World Figure Skating Championships

Max Aaron skates at the ISU World Team Trophy in Tokyo. Credit: Atsushi Tomura/Getty

On the day he became the best man in America at the second sport he chose, Max Aaron wasn't nervous. He thought about his parents in the stands, who he'd left as a teenager to go train in Colorado Springs and who'd never gotten to see him perform perfectly at a major event. It was more calming to meditate on owing it to them than beating other dudes. Besides, he didn't know if he could win.

Just the year before he'd considered walking away from figure skating. Officials and skating viewers said he didn't fit the profile of a figure skater. They remarked that he skated like a hockey player, and they meant it as an insult. The comparison wasn't entirely without merit. Aaron had been a hockey player, and in his second coming as a figure skater, he still then had the habit of pumping awkwardly to rev up to full velocity, his upper body tipping forward as if he was chasing a puck. But hockey players don't execute the high-level jumps Aaron was building a reputation for mastering. So he gave himself one more year to skate a clean program in front of his parents, who traveled from Arizona to Nebraska see their son skate in the U.S. Championships.

It was January 27, 2013. Aaron, 20, skated onto the ice in Omaha and stopped with little fanfare. He crossed his arms, waited for the music to start. This year, he was faster and fitter. He hurled himself into the air and landed precisely over and over. Two of the jumps were quadruple Salchows, pitches off the left foot, followed by a transfer of weight, four corkscrew turns and a return to earth on the right foot. They were rarities even at the highest level of competition in American figure skating. All week he'd been feeling a sense of momentum, and as he skated his long program, the crowd seemed to grow louder. Before the music stopped, he allowed himself one stray observation: "This is really cool." And just like that, four and half minutes had passed. Aaron couldn't help himself; he started clapping right along with the audience. Then he swooped into a lunge like a hockey player and shook his fist. Plush objects like stuffed strawberries were tossed onto the ice by screaming girls.

Off ice, as he waited for scores, he looked into the camera and greeted his grandpa. He pressed his hands together and bowed his head in gratitude to the audience. The marks came up. "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" he shouted.

"It worked out that I was U.S. Champion," he says three years later. "I couldn't believe it. I remember standing on the podium, looking at my mom, wondering, 'How did this happen?'"

How did it happen? For most of his life, it had seemed that if Aaron were going to be the national champion of anything, it would be hockey. But it was hockey that brought him to figure skating, when, at age nine, there were few opportunities for competitive play during the summer. The thinking was that figure skating would ramp up his hockey skill set. And it worked. As a teen, he played at the national level and was selected for the U.S. National Team Development Program. He remembers the weigh-in and fitness tests, the on-ice play against guys who had almost a foot on him, as some of the best memories of his life, and even still he calls hockey his first love.

However while guys he played with were growing to be 16-year-olds who stood 6-foot-something, Aaron only stretched to 5-foot-4 (optimistically). He began to feel that something was wrong. One night, he turned to his teammate Ryan Francis, a legacy hockey player whose father Bobby Francis coached the Phoenix Coyotes and whose grandfather was once an NHL GM.

"I think this is the last game of my career," Aaron said. "Thanks for the fun times. I really enjoyed it." Soon after, Aaron would discover that he'd fractured two vertebrae. He rehabilitated successfully, but he knew he still wasn't going to put on the mass necessary for NHL play. Yet he still wanted to be a world-class athlete.

In The Cutting Edge, the early Nineties cult classic, hockey player Doug Dorsey is forced to retire after an ocular injury – for full immersion into the eye injury-cum-skating redemption story, see Ice Castles – and subsequently takes a lot of princessy abuse from Kate Moseley, a skater he agrees to team up with for the 1992 Olympics after she drops her butterfingers pairs partner. Over the course of what appears to be a handful of weeks, the two somehow end up top competitors. Then before their Olympic long program, Dorsey confesses his love in a melodramatic whisper in which he seems to imply that he's been unable to body check his passion into submission, to which Moseley responds that they can do the dangerous (and made-up) move, the Pamchenko. After the successful routine, Dorsey says Moseley didn't have to do the Pamchenko, and in the Twilight Zone logic of the athletic metaphor, as Moseley declares she did it because she loves him, it becomes clear that PG proxy sex has occurred, all while lurid smoke and tuxedoed judges surround the couple.

Aaron's transition from hockey to figure skating was less dramatic. He'd been skating for seven years, and though hockey was his primary focus, he'd qualified for national competition in the pre-senior ranks of figure skating. Moreover, his size was less of a problem in figure skating. Then-U.S. champion Evan Lysacek was 6-foot-2, but guys like Scott Hamilton had won the Olympics, and he was only 5-foot-3 by dint of generous rounding when he took gold in Sarajevo. So Aaron left his parents in Arizona for Colorado Springs to begin his senior year of high school and train at an elite facility with renowned coach Tom Zakrajsek. He studied video of great jumpers like Timothy Goebel, Patrick Chan and Evgeni Plushenko, and compared them to his own tape, searching for the technical clues that could make him a world-class figure skater. "Just mold yourself into that," he told himself. It helped that he wasn't afraid to fall.

Zakrajsek recalls Aaron's skating then as "really rough," but he also saw preternatural focus and a willingness to try anything.

"I probably said something to the Aarons, his parents, that he was like an iceberg and all we were seeing is the tip and there was a lot underneath, underneath the surface," he elaborates. "My job, and everybody's job that has worked with Max, every choreographer, every strength coach, every dance coach…is to help the part that's under the surface come to the surface."

That job didn't end with Aaron's 2013 U.S. Championship victory. He'd won on the basis of athletic fiat but lacked some of the grace and artistry that comprises half a skater's score, the portion known as Components. In 2014, he returned to the U.S. Championships with the hope of qualifying for the Sochi Olympics. There were only two spots. Aaron was technically brilliant and powerful. He had what the commentators call "attack." But he made a couple of minor errors that left just enough room for the judging panel to squeak a teenager named Jason Brown past him.

Brown and Aaron were perfect foils. Where Aaron was brawny, aggressive and stoic – an outlandishly accomplished jumper who barreled down the ice like an act of war – Brown was a lithe, ponytailed showman whose long program to the music of Riverdance would go viral. Brown didn't have the demanding quads of Aaron; he had leprechaun charm. He smiled, made it look easy and though his program was somewhat easier, Brown and fellow countryman Jeremy Abbott went to the Olympics. Aaron stayed home and watched the Sochi Games on television.

If he was bitter, Aaron didn't show it. With generosity, not to mention politeness – and Aaron is all manners and meritocratic aphorisms – he says that it was a "cool feeling" watching his "teammates" with whom he didn't share a team that year.

"I was super proud," he says, and he seems to mean it.

Besides, Aaron knew he needed work. His reputation as all quadriceps and big jumps wasn't helping to secure titles. So he decided to develop his Components mark. Aaron has worked with some of the best choreographers in the world, including Tom Dickson, Catarina Lindgren and Phillip Mills, who is often credited with turning three-time U.S. Champion Ashley Wagner into a performer.

Aaron is one of the best in the world at one Component, "skating skills," which focuses on balance, technique and power. Where he's faltered are criteria like "style and individuality/personality" and "physical, emotional and intellectual involvement," that demand the expression of identity. Aaron, after all, is a difficult man to know. During our conversation, I ask him what he does for fun.

"Studying," he says. He tells me he likes to look at finance books. I ask what he'd be doing if he never became an athlete.

"No sports…" he trails off. "Hmmm. I don't know. I couldn't answer that."

Aaron calls almost everything "neat" or "cool." His competitors are "inspiring." He is sane and well adjusted past disbelief and back again, the son any parent would want. But maybe it is exactly this, the very lack of pathos, the sincerity and wholesome goodness of Aaron, that makes it difficult for him to pony up high Components scores. After all, some styles look a little less like style. Skaters like Brown or this year's champion Adam Rippon appear to have contagious fun when they skate, and the judges love it. You can imagine Brown mugging it up as a successful Lucky Charms mascot or Rippon throwing fabulous, bedazzled parties. In early performances, Aaron was evoking his idea of fun too. His idea of fun just happened to be studying finance.

This year, however, it's been remarked that Aaron has made major strides toward becoming an athlete, which has involved the kind of work that's less obviously difficult than lifting and conditioning (though Aaron does plenty of that too): the work of learning how to issue an emotional valence, even when the emotions might not be what is honestly felt. Especially then. In other words, Aaron needed to learn how to represent exactly the opposite of his psyche as he skates, the opposite of concentration on technique and stamina and anaerobic snap. So far, the results have been mixed. Aaron won a prestigious international competition, Skate America, early in the season and was favored to win the U.S. Championships in January. Not everyone was convinced, though. Before the competition, Scott Hamilton was asked to weigh in. "He's all athlete. He's a hockey player and a figure skater," Hamilton said, repeating the tired Aaron sound byte.

In response, once again, Aaron skated a strong and commanding performance – to the dramatic music from Black Swan. Choreographic sequences appeared less cursory, and he built upon his "skating skills" even more, generating immense power from his edges.

As Aaron took his bows, commentator Tara Lipinski remarked, "I think he is so brave for skating to Black Swan. He's like a Plushenko or an Elvis Stojko, where they were always criticized for their style, but they made it work, and I think Max is in that process: making it work."

Johnny Weir, fellow commentator, took his cue for a moment of good cop/bad cop. "A swan he is not. A great technical athlete, yes."

In a decision much like that in 2014, the judges ruled in favor of artistry over athleticism, granting gold to Rippon and silver to Aaron. Aaron was unperturbed, however. He had still qualified for the World Championships in Boston, which are broadcast this week on NBCSN. He knows it represents yet another opportunity to shake his puck-chaser rep in the world of figure skating, and you can tell he's excited, because he talks about it, well, like a hockey player.

"I love any event in the United States," he says, "because I treat it like it's my home, my house. And I'm going to protect it."