As a teenage hockey player, Max Aaron was a playmaking center, small but aggressive, and apparently a little nutso.

Standing only 5-7 now and more diminutive back then, he wasn’t scared to take a punch in defense of a teammate.

“I got knocked down a lot with some of their punches,” he said. “I took the helmet off and the gloves off. I’ll fight anybody. It was fun.”

Aaron grew up in the hockey hotbed of Arizona, but he loved the sport and excelled at it.

He planned to attend the U.S. National Team Development program and dreamed of playing college hockey at the University of Michigan. He battled current Minnesota Wild winger Jason Zucker in pewee tournaments in Las Vegas several times.

“He was amazing,” Aaron said. “His stickhandling skills were so good. We were like, ‘We’ve got to double-team that guy.’ ”

Aaron took up figure skating as a second sport, but hockey was his true passion. He still was competing in both when he arrived at Xcel Energy Center in 2008 for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

He placed 13th in the junior event despite chronic back pain from years of hockey collisions. He managed his back problems until he could no longer tolerate it.

“It was killing me,” he said.

Tests revealed two fractured vertebrae. He spent 23 hours a day in a body cast for four months, removing it only to shower.

“Brutal,” he said.

His hockey career was over at age 16.

Once he regained his health, Aaron decided to devote himself to figure skating to see if he had a future.

Smart decision. He became U.S. champion in 2013.

Aaron returned to Xcel Energy Center this weekend, 23 years old and favored to medal in the men’s competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Skating to Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma” in Friday’s short program, Aaron received a standing ovation after posting a score of 91.83 for first place entering Sunday’s free skate.

His performance offered power and grace, a successful start to the championship.

Critics nitpick Aaron’s performances as being too dependent on jumps, that he’s a hockey player competing in figure skating. He has worked hard to shed that label.

“Still to this day, everyone still thinks of me as a hockey player,” he said. “But I’m trying to grow as an artistic figure skater. When you have that reputation, sometimes it’s hard to break it.”

Even as U.S. champion in ’13, Aaron scored high marks for his forceful jumps and spins but was knocked for bland artistry.

He missed making the Sochi Olympic team in 2014 and took fourth in the U.S. championships last year, failing to qualify for the World Championships.

Aaron knew he had to change to contend at the highest level. He had to become a more complete performer, not one who relied solely on the difficulty of quad jumps.

“To be competitive with the men in the world, you’ve got to bring those [artistic] scores up,” he said. “Not only be consistent with the jumps, but you have to get the component score with it to be unstoppable.”

Aaron has embraced recommendations made by his choreographer Phillip Mills to incorporate more artistry into his performances.

In October, Aaron became the first U.S. man to win Skate America since 2009. His gold in the international Grand Prix event validated his willingness to evolve as a performer.

“It’s getting there,” he said.

Aaron’s hockey background still serves him well in this discipline. He noted that as a hockey player, he gave max effort 40 seconds every shift. He approaches figure skating with a similar mind-set, albeit for a longer “shift.” His performances last several minutes instead of seconds.

“I want to go out the whole time and attack it,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to kind of pace yourself through the program. With that hockey background, on a shift, I would be constantly flying around.”

Occasionally, he’d fight an opponent who challenged him. He still misses hockey, but performing a quad Salchow seems safer than dropping his gloves.