The gesture went by in a blink, and it might have been lost on most of the crowd at January's U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Omaha, Neb. But Max Aaron's parents knew exactly what he meant when he slid briefly on one knee and punched a fist in the air after skating the program that secured the national title.
It was his old goal-scoring celebration. The only thing missing was the flashing red light.
Aaron is a rarity -- an athlete who pulled double shifts, so to speak, in both high-level youth hockey and figure skating from the time he was 8 years old until he was 16, logging ice time most days before and after school. He was always the smallest kid on his travel team, and a late bloomer at that, but wore his ambition on his jersey sleeve: No. 91, for his childhood favorite, Sergei Fedorov.
The Stanley Cup has moved beyond Aaron's grasp, but the 21-year-old has propelled himself from obscurity onto skating's biggest stage and this week will compete in his first world championships, an important stage-setter for next year's Sochi Olympics. The men's short program at the Budweiser Gardens in London, Ontario, is Wednesday afternoon.
In Aaron's last year on an AAA midget select team in greater Phoenix, he was a diminutive 5 feet, 2 inches tall and 130 pounds, give or take. He made up for his stature with speed, agility, stickhandling skill and aggression. He was adept at piling up both penalty minutes and assists, and never shied away from a scrum or a scuffle. "People would throw elbows at him and they'd go over his head," said his father, Neil, a pediatrician. His ability earned him a spot on an under-14 USA Hockey developmental roster.
Aaron attributes his physical and mental stamina to the base he built as a kid. "It started in hockey, where the shifts were a minute and a half and if I had a backcheck at the last second and was too tired, I could cost my team a goal or a penalty," he said.
His skating style, fed by those years, is swift and fluid and uses every inch of the sheet, skimming along the boards where he once jousted for pucks. Childhood teammate Luke Moffatt, who now plays for the University of Michigan and was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche at age 18, said he's convinced Aaron's speed, grit and touch around the net could have propelled him into Division I college hockey had things gone a little differently.
Former Phoenix Coyotes general manager and top player agent Mike Barnett, now a senior adviser and consultant for the New York Rangers, watched Aaron grow up in the game alongside his own son.
"I can't say that it surprises me to see him having the success he's having in figure skating," Barnett said. "He was dedicated, skilled, passionate and fearless. He could surprise much bigger opponents by getting there more quickly, using his body and launching into them. He had great balance and explosiveness, and often, he was the one left standing."
Who knows how far Aaron would have taken the game had his body not made part of the decision for him.
Aaron's back had been aching for months -- something he'd stubbornly kept to himself -- on the day he was lifting weights in the gym and felt something pop. He had fractures in two vertebrae and had to spend the next four months with his torso encased in a plastic cast. When he emerged from that painful chrysalis, he began to grow (he's now listed at 5 feet, 8 inches), but believed the prospects of playing college hockey were too dim to pursue and focused all of his considerable energy on figure skating.
The bet appeared to pay off in junior competition, where Aaron won a national championship and placed high in international events. His passage to the senior level was rougher. He was critiqued for a lack of artistry and deficient spins and footwork. He wondered if he was chasing something unreachable.
"Throughout my career, all I heard was that I would never make it in the sport because I was too much of a 'European' skater," Aaron said, citing skating code words for a powerful jumper who lacks elegance. After finishing eighth at last year's nationals, he applied and was accepted into a business program at Arizona State University, and, in his mother's words, "last summer, he was coming home."
Mindy Aaron, a petite former competitive gymnast and neonatal intensive care nurse, believed her son had more in the tank. After taking time off, Max came to the same conclusion and shrugged off past verdicts. He returned to Colorado Springs, where he works with coach Tom Zakrajsek and has shared practice sessions with former U.S. champ Ryan Bradley and two-time defending world gold medalist Patrick Chan of Canada.
Both have been great influences on him, Zakrajsek said. Aaron and Chan (who recently relocated to Detroit, at least temporarily) hiked and rode mountain bikes and played golf together. The coach said Bradley, now retired and performing in shows, is the one who prodded an initially resistant Aaron into spending some time in the dance studio. "He'll make fun of you until you do what you're supposed to do," Zakrajsek said. Aaron's younger sister, Madeleine, a junior pairs skater, trains at the same rink and Mindy spends most weekdays in Colorado Springs. (Older sister Molly, now enrolled at ASU, also competed in pairs at the senior national level.)
Aaron won the U.S. title thanks to his plyometrics, landing three quads in two programs. Men's skating has entered an era when international gold medals won't be won without them.
He and Zakrajsek are well aware he needs to add grace notes and a touch of theater. It's not the easiest evolution for a jock, but Zakrajsek noted that most top male skaters in recent years have followed the same pattern.
Choreographer Pasquale Camerlengo designed programs to play to Aaron's strengths and has tweaked them since nationals to show "appropriate artistic advancement," Zakrajsek said. Much of the up-tempo portion of Aaron's long program is, fittingly for an ex-hockey player, excerpted from the music that accompanies the rumble between rival gangs in "West Side Story."
In a tactic that marries his competitiveness with a dose of showmanship, Aaron flings himself into a triple loop jump five seconds before his free-skate music stops -- a juncture when most skaters are gassed and just trying to hang on. It's a statement of style and daring, and a way to keep the crowd interested "until the very end. It holds their attention," he said.
Aaron and fellow U.S. skater Ross Miner need to finish with combined placements of 13th or better to guarantee their country three slots in Sochi. Zakrajsek said Aaron isn't fazed by that equation. "He's excited about it," the coach said. "He's not one to say, 'Oh gosh, I don't want that responsibility.'"
Perhaps that's the legacy of being a team player for so long.