By MARK HUNTER
Daily News Sports Reporter
The Kamloops Blazers came a long way and turned a lot of heads this season.
Somewhere down the road - maybe in a week or two - that might be of some comfort to the WHL club's players and fans.
But Thursday was a day of mixed emotions for the 26 players who were at Interior Savings Centre to clean out the lockers and pack up the equipment.
"The team had such a successful season and turned this organization around," said winger Jordan DePape, who missed 58 games with a shoulder injury. "It was upsetting to lose . . . but we know we still had a great season."
The Blazers lost 2-0 to the host Portland Winterhawks on Wednesday in Game 7 of a Western Conference semifinal series. After falling behind 3-0 in the series, Kamloops battled back to force Game 7, a comeback that captured the imagination of sports fans around the country.
But it also brought something to Kamloops that hadn't been seen in years — a certain excitement for a team that had struggled for more than a decade.
"I think we reset the fire," said winger Brendan Ranford, who just wrapped up his fourth season here. "We kind of rekindled the fire in the community and we wrote our own little story."
The Blazers' season ended almost in the same fashion in which it started — with a shutout loss.
But, in the 81 games between a 1-0 loss to the visiting Prince George Cougars on Sept. 24 and Wednesday's defeat, Kamloops was excellent, enjoying its best season since 1998-99.
The Blazers went 47-20-2-3 to win the B.C. Division for the first time since 2000-01, and also rattled off winning streaks of nine and eight games. They finished with the league's fourth best record, behind the Edmonton Oil Kings (50-15-3-4), Tri-City Americans (50-18-2-2) and Portland (49-19-3-1).
All this, after missing the playoffs in 2010-11.
"The biggest thing . . . from the players' perspective is that they wanted to change, they wanted to do something themselves," said Guy Charron, head coach of the Blazers. "They were willing to make the sacrifices and the commitment to be a successful team."
The playoffs started well for Kamloops, which swept the Victoria Royals in the first round. The Blazers' Game 1 victory in that series — 4-1 at home on March 23 - was the club's first playoff victory since March 29, 2005, while the series victory was its first since 1999.
"I wish I was still 16 or 17, with this experience," Ranford said. "I said to Cole Ully a few days ago - 'We just won our first playoff game together.' He's 16, I'm 19 and when I thought about it, I was just . . . 'Wow.' "
And the city is still buzzing over the Portland series.
The Winterhawks won the first two games in Portland — 5-3 on April 6, and 4-1 the next night — before winning 5-2 at ISC in Game 3 on April 10.
Then, something special happened.
Kamloops, down 4-0 less than 11 minutes into Game 4 on April 11, roared back to win 5-4, then went into Portland and won 7-2 on Saturday.
The Blazers won Monday's Game 6, 7-6, coming back from a 5-2 deficit in the third period and winning it with 20 seconds remaining. The fans, and there were 5,080 of them at ISC on that night, gave the players an ovation no one will soon forget, and the hometown heroes came out for a curtain call.
"Words can't even describe it," DePape said. "That was the best feeling I've ever had in hockey."
"It was probably one of the most memorable moments of my career," added defenceman Austin Madaisky.
But the comeback ended Wednesday, with Portland scoring 61 seconds into Game 7 and sealing the victory with a third-period goal.
The Blazers rode the bus overnight, arriving home Thursday at about 6:30 a.m.
"You kind of come to the realization . . . you're sitting on the bus, and nobody can even move," Madaisky said. "When you look around and see guys like that — we literally left it all out there.
"You can't be too upset if you look at the guy next to you and he can't even eat his food because he's so tired."
Riding that bus all night gave the players the opportunity to see that, yes, the sun did come up yesterday morning, as it will today.
And there is optimism on the horizon for the Blazers, who will return a good chunk of their roster next season. Kamloops will lose three of its six 1992-born players, along with its three 20-year-old players — defenceman Bronson Maschmeyer and forwards Chase Schaber and Brandon Herrod.
"All those guys (made) big contributions," Charron said, "and for Chase and Bronson, who have been here from the beginning of the year, they believed in what we were trying to accomplish - to create an identity and start some successful seasons for the Blazers.
"They're part of it, and that's what they should be proud of."
And although the future appears bright, it might be difficult to replicate the closeness of this year's team.
"We're a family," Ranford said. "There are no divides in the room, and everybody hangs out with everybody.
"It felt like we were brothers, and it was a fun time just to come to the rink."
JUST NOTES: Schaber, the Blazers' captain, had his season end when his left leg was cut by a skate blade in Game 3 of the Victoria series. . . . G Cole Cheveldave missed the last six games of the Portland series after suffering a concussion in Game 1. He dressed for Game 7 and backed up G Cam Lanigan. . . . Those were the only major injuries for the Blazers, although C Colin Smith played with an injured shoulder on Wednesday and C Matt Needham hurt a leg after blocking a shot.