The text message lit up Steve Chelios' cell phone display on July 29, 2010.

The text message lit up Steve Chelios' cell phone display on July 29, 2010.

The Southern Oregon Spartans head coach was at his home when he received the note, another lightning bolt of abbreviated information to a simple guy — a hockey man — adjusting to the habits of a younger generation. Training camp was just a few weeks away and the franchise was undergoing a dramatic makeover, meaning Chelios' phone was constantly vibrating.

Only this text was different, a pleasant surprise.

It was from Chris Whitten, a hockey player whom Chelios considered immeasurably talented but unsettled. Whitten had been following news of the Spartans' intense offseason recruiting campaign, which spelled more first-line competition.

The text message read:

"I've heard about all these first line guys you guys are recruiting. I have never been so serious saying I would fight for my position on first line. You are gonna see the new (me) this season."

Chelios smiled. The assurance he needed came in a flash. Whitten was ready to play.

"I just thought, 'I'm not gonna lose my mentality for the game to new players,'" Whitten recalls. "I was gonna pick up my game and my leadership."

Chelios receives many messages, but he saved that one. It reminds him of Whitten's story, and shows a lesson in humility that the second-year coach has seen end in failure and triumph many times before.

In Whitten's case, it's turning into a tale of success. This season, the 6-foot-3, 197-pound center owns a team-best 67 points with 41 assists and 26 goals in 37 games for the Spartans.

Once resentful over a position change and slowed by the toll of injuries, the Vacaville, Calif., native is now third in scoring in the Northern Pacific Hockey League and first in the Pacific division. He hasn't missed a match.

And where there once was so little on the line, the stakes have risen greatly with the rebirth of Medford's Tier III Junior A league squad. Last year, the Rogue Valley Wranglers won eight games, doubling its combined total from its first two years of existence. The franchise was renamed in February when new ownership took over, and sweeping changes have since turned the league laughing stock into a nightly threat.

Embracing the beauty and flaws of his situation, the 20-year-old Whitten has buried the doubt and bitterness that once filled his head and darkened his heart, replacing the frustration with optimism.

The transformation wasn't glamorous, but Chelios and Whitten both agree it was necessary.

"He showed a willingness to pay the price," Chelios says.

Whitten had languished through some of the 2009-10 season, aggravated at times by his role as a defenseman and curtailed by multiple shoulder injuries. During his first year with the franchise, he registered 28 points (16 assists, 12 goals) in 30 games, but was sidelined for seven weeks after recurring pain in his upper body made it too excruciating to play.

It was a rough time for the Wranglers and for Whitten, who wanted to play center and often found himself operating begrudgingly.

"I was getting injured, bleeding every game for a last-place team and not playing my position," Whitten says. "I took it the wrong way."

Said Chelios: "The kid just didn't have the drive. He played to have fun. We didn't want him here if he wasn't here for the right reasons. That eventually hit a chord, and that was all on his own."

Oh, how times have changed.

The Spartans, who are in second place behind powerhouse Seattle in the NORPAC Pacific division, kicked off a six-game homestand by hosting the Totems on Thursday. Of the 12 matches left on their schedule, nine are at home, which bodes well for a squad that has never come close to a postseason.

"We are really happy," co-owner Troy Irving says of his team's historic year. "Right now, with how the team is playing, we are starting to peak and come up. There is even better play to be played. We are just starting to hit it now at the right time."

The top four teams from the NORPAC Pacific division will advance to the playoffs. The divisional winner will play the America West league champion and also advance to the Tier III Junior A league national tournament.

Southern Oregon beat the Totems 5-3 on Jan. 15, giving the franchise one of its biggest victories and dealing Seattle only its third loss.

"We don't match up against them talent-wise," Chelios says of Seattle. "On paper, we would never beat them. But we talk about it all the time: Getting rid of the doubt and directing it at them, showing them we have made a bigger sacrifice."

Whitten, who has played hockey for 16 years, has proved irreplaceable in that effort, even if Chelios initially misconstrued his name.

Chelios, who has a nickname for each of his players, called Whitten "Whitter" when they first met. "Whitter" soon became "Twitter," which is now his handle on the ice.

And on the ice, Whitten leaves his most memorable messages. Now happy, healthier and whole, he is a versatile player whom Chelios says hits "like a truck."

"He's just an untapped well of resources when he is really focused on what he is doing," Chelios says. "He didn't even realize it at first. But he awoke the giant in himself. ... He wants to be counted upon in key situations."

Earlier this season, Southern Oregon was down several players during the third period of a tight contest. Chelios had given Whitten his word before the start of the year that he would only use him as a defenseman if it was necessary.

Before Chelios could even ask, Whitten approached him that night and offered to switch to defense.

"That served as motivation after the game," Chelios recalls, "showing he would make the sacrifice."

In Vacaville, Whitten's high school did not have a hockey team, so he played on a club squad.

"He was that local legend who was above the class of competition," Chelios says. "It's that big fish in a little pond theory. He was always going out and scoring goals and was always the big shot. Now, you are playing in an incredible league, where you have to dig deep and work harder. Everything came natural to the kid."

Irving and former general manager Kevin Schwartz first spotted Whitten about two years ago when they took a local midget hockey team to a tournament in California. There, they saw him earn most valuable player honors after scoring 23 points in five games. Whitten signed with the franchise a few months later.

"He moved really well, handled the puck and he could really hit," says Irving, who hosted Whitten last season.

Whitten's maturity level is now catching up with his talent level, which Chelios says has been noticed by several college scouts.

On a scaffold above the penalty box and scorekeeper's booth at The RRRink, where the Spartans play, Southern Oregon films several players each match, gaining footage that will be analyzed, edited with player interviews and finally sent to college and professional coaches.

Whitten took pride in his interview, realizing just how much he'd changed as he thought about the qualities he wanted to express.

"My role is to look after the younger players and give them advice and uplift them," Whitten says.

Hearing that makes Chelios happy — it makes him want to keep that text message he received on July 29, 2010.

"I show it to everybody," Chelios says of the message. "It shows a kid from nowhere can get anywhere if he gets himself straight and lined up."

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or e-mail djones@mailtribune.com