Max Aaron utilizing hockey mentality

Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Max Aaron thought he would be checking players into the boards at Joe Louis Arena. This weekend, he’s taking his no-fear hockey roots to the ice at Skate America 2013 in his attempt to represent the U.S. men in figure skating at Sochi.

DETROIT -- He may have been on his butt less than if he had been in that Detroit Red Wings uniform he always dreamed of wearing, but it was actually a good day for Max Aaron at Joe Louis Arena on Thursday. Pulling off moves few in the world have done, yet falling on others as he usually completes, Aaron takes that fists-flying hockey mentality into a sport that doesn't often see it.

Aaron, Adam Rippon and Jason Brown are in Detroit this week for Skate America 2013, part of the ISU Grand Prix of Skating series, as they continue to jostle for the two positions representing the United States at the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, this February.

Aaron is considered something of a lock for the U.S. team, while the other spot is up in the air with defending Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek's status uncertain. Lysacek pulled out of the Detroit event with a torn labrum in his left hip, and was previously sidelined with a groin injury and hernia surgery that has kept him out of competition since the 2010 Olympics.

Brown replaced Lysacek, and brings to this weekend's event the carefree attitude one might expect from an 18-year-old in his biggest competition.

"At first it didn't kick in I was actually going to Skate America," Brown said. "It took a couple of days, and then it was, 'This is really happening. I'm going, I'm going.' "

He called his first practice here "cool," and said of the competition, "Whatever happens, happens. I want to take in as much as I can."

The other two don't have that luxury. Rippon, seemingly always on the brink of technical brilliance, is competing in his first grand prix event of the season and must put it together here.

And Aaron? He is also in his first grand prix event, but you wouldn't know it from the combination of confidence, exuberance and his "go big or go home" attitude.

Both a high-level hockey player and figure skater from age 8 until 16, he fractured two vertebrae while training, which ended his hopes to play college hockey. But the 5-foot-8 dynamo kept at figure skating, defying those who said his lack of grace would keep him from reaching an elite level.

Now he brings both mentalities to the ice, and the same heart to bear in an arena that still doesn't seem to know quite what to make of him.

"Before I broke my back, I was really looking forward to playing hockey at the University of Michigan," Aaron said. "That was my biggest goal. ... I didn't think I had the ability to make the Olympic team or even come close, but now that I have this great opportunity, I'm thankful every day and want to just run with it ....

"Now that I'm here, there's no backing down, I'm not afraid of anyone. No fear, that's my approach every single time I'm on the ice. I want to be the top man in our sport. I want to be that guy everyone wants to see skate."

All eyes were on Aaron during practice Thursday as he fell on a few quadruple toe attempts and turned out of his quad Salchow while hitting two triple axels instead. He has three quads and two triple axels in his long program, and if he pulls it off, it will be a feat only a few other men in the world can accomplish.

Not surprisingly, he treated the falls like an opponent who would soon face retaliation for a hard check into the boards.

"It was definitely a rough one for me today and I'm glad it happened," Aaron said. "It was a wake-up call and it's not going to come easy. It's going to be a tough battle. I'm glad this was the first time I actually struggled with the quad toe, so this is a great opportunity to work the kinks out and really work on my timing because it's not going to come easy. It's going to be a rough road. ... But I'm looking forward to getting the opportunity to compete tomorrow and seeing where I land with the best of the men."

Aaron's coach, Tom Zakrajsek, had the same response, and said the two don't like to talk about Aaron's high odds of making the Olympic team, though not for the clichéd reason one might expect.

"I really don't think Max just wants to make the team, I think Max wants to be competitive at the podium level at the Olympic Games and the world championships," Zakrajsek said. "Having finished seventh [at worlds in April], he went, 'How do I get to the podium?' And hopefully being in that mindset will help him get on the Olympic team."

While saying there is no guarantee he will make the Olympic team, Aaron freely admitted, "I'm looking beyond the U.S. Nationals [in January]. I'm looking towards that Olympic medal and that Olympic gold and what it's going to take to get there."

The hockey mentality is clearly at work.

"What it really is, is just being aggressive and not shying away from falling or messing up because it could happen, but really it's just attacking and not letting anything slip away," he said.

On Thursday, he reminisced a bit about his hockey days, about long-ago visits to Joe Louis and about one of his goals this weekend, which is to sneak a peek inside the Red Wings locker room.

"I'm a huge Red Wings fan and I remember coming here when I must have been 5 or 6 years old and going to games because my family is from here, and I remember thinking, 'If I can ever play on this ice ...' " Aaron said. "At the time, I wanted to play hockey on this ice. But now to get the opportunity to figure skate on this ice and compete on this ice with a lot of the great ones who are here, it's an honor ... and just great to be in the arena."

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