Max Aaron was the smallest guy on the Phoenix Firebirds, a select Bantam AAA travel hockey team in Arizona — so small, in fact, that teammates designed a goofy play for him.
The idea was to have Aaron, about 5 feet and 100 pounds at the time, put the puck between a defenseman's legs, follow it through with a squat or a "shoot-the-duck" move and then pick it up on the other side for a breakaway. If there were no opening down low, Aaron would try a figure skating jump as a spin-o-rama to shake the defenseman.
They fooled around with it in practice but never pulled it out in a game.
"I don't think either one ended up working," said University of Michigan junior forward Luke Moffatt, who was Aaron's linemate on the Firebirds, in a text message punctuated with a laugh.
It wasn't because Aaron, now 5-8, lacked the guts or jumping ability to try.
"He was never scared to dig his nose into the corner against guys twice his size and get the puck from them," Moffatt recalled during a phone conversation. "I have no doubt if he had pursued hockey the way he did figure skating, Max could be playing right along side me."
Aaron began hockey at 4 and figure skating at 9. He did both until a back injury led him to stop hockey at 16, when he was playing for a select Midget team.
Five years later, he has jumped around everyone in just as surprising a move to become U.S. figure skating's new quad king and national champion.
At the U.S. championships in late January, Aaron nailed one quad in the short program and two in the free skate to win an event in which he had finished just a distant eighth the year before. That put him on the team for the world championships that begin Wednesday in London, Ontario.
"It feels like he is in the air an eternity, and I don't fathom how he does that," Moffatt said after seeing the performance on Tivo. "It was impressive to watch even if I hadn't known it was Max out there. The cherry on top was knowing it was a kid I had grown up with."
It was even sweeter for Aaron, who did it only a year after the sport had become such bitter fruit that he had all but quit.
"All I heard after the (2012 national) championships and pretty much through my whole career was that I will never make it big in the sport. I am too much of a European style skater," Aaron said. "Having people tell me that, especially some top people in figure skating, really hurt my feelings."
Aaron's interpretation of that criticism was that his unadorned athletic style — think 2007 world champion and three-time European champion Brian Joubert of France — was too jarring for some U.S. sensibilities of how a men's champion should look like.
"This is the way I skate," Aaron said. "A lot of fans and judges are more used to the style of a Jeremy Abbott."
There is no doubt Aaron's skating still lacks artistic polish. Both the discordant music and choreographic muck in his short program make the edges seem rougher, although he capably embodies the finger-snapping swagger of a Jet or a Shark in his West Side Story long program. But after finishing 62 points behind Abbott at 2012 nationals, Aaron beat the three-time U.S. champion by six this year, and it was ridiculous to think he cannot be successful in an era when quadruple jumps have become so important:
•The top three men overall at last year's worlds — none European — combined to do four quads in the free skate and three in the short program.
•The top four in the free skate at the 2013 European championships had eight clean quads, three by winner Javier Fernandez of Spain.
"Lucky for Max, this is the trend," said Aaron's mother, Mindy.
So she encouraged her son to give it one more year. If it didn't work out, he simply would return to Arizona and go to business school at Arizona State University.
After he had dropped hockey to focus on figure skating, the Aarons moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., so he could train with Tom Zakrajsek, who coached both Abbott and Rachael Flatt to U.S. titles.