The Steelheads hosted the Alaska Aces on Dec. 12, a game Idaho won 4-0.
A little more than a month later, the teams met again Friday night at CenturyLink Arena.
The scoreboards were the same, as were the concession stands and many of the hockey fans in the seats.
But on the ice, there was a world of difference. Lets just say the NHL lockout was a real game-changer for the two teams and the rest of the ECHL.
The two sides in the labor dispute came to an agreement Jan. 6. As the NHL prepared to resume play, jobs at the next two levels opened up. Idaho had 10 of its players called up to the AHL. Alaska saw four of its players return to their roles in the NHL.
I think the whole league is readjusting at this point, Steelheads coach Brad Ralph said. Certainly, from our end, we lost more players than we anticipated.
That left Ralph, and virtually every other ECHL coach, searching for players.
There are only so many players we can keep on our roster, Ralph said. In the last three weeks Ive been digging hard to find players to come in. But its been a struggle. The pool of players is very thin.
Alaska coach Rob Murray knows that all too well.
Were scrambling to find players, Murray said. We had four NHL players on our roster, and obviously thats a big hole to fill. But I had the opportunity to have them and it was something I couldnt pass on. But I knew down the road hoping that it would never happen that these guys can be gone.
Ralph said ECHL coaches are used to player movement, but what has happened in the past month is unprecedented.
Typically, youre looking to fill one hole a month or two holes a month, he said. But now we have 22 teams looking to fill five holes. Thats 100 players that this league is trying to find.
Many coaches turned to the Southern Professional Hockey League, a lower-level league that Ralph coached in prior to coming to Idaho.
Idaho has added two players from the SPHL, and Alaska has added three.
I know whos hurting the most: the Southern Professional League, Murray said. I feel for them. I was hesitant to pick up the phone and pick up some players, but I had to. I felt bad. Theyve got nowhere to draw from. It all stops somewhere.
Ralph knows that all too well.
Certainly, at our level and the levels below us, it hurts us most, he said.
Its safe to say, there have been plenty of hockey coaches reaching for the Rolaids in the past few weeks.
Its frustrating, theres no doubt about it, Ralph said. You work with these players for three months and you put a lot of time and effort into developing them and growing them for the next level, and then you lose half of your team. Its frustrating, theres no way around it.
Thats part of this level, developing players and moving them on. I guess youd just prefer them to move on in increments and not all at once.
Murray is optimistic that a sense of normalcy could be returning soon.
As of (Friday), the rosters are set in the NHL, and they can only carry 23 guys, he said. So you might see a lot of the bodies that got called up come back to our level, but I dont think youre going to get them all back.
In the meantime, there are holes to be plugged and games to be played, one way or the other.
Its a big change, obviously, said defenseman Matt Case, who was the only active defenseman Friday night from the eight who were on the roster on opening night. With that change, youve got to work around it. You cant just sit there and sulk about it. Youve got to deal with it and keep going.
The good news for Steelheads fans is that almost every team in the league is dealing with a revamped roster.
We have a lot of new faces in here, Aces defenseman Sean Curry said. Weve all just got to adjust to it. A lot of guys who were on third or fourth lines are now on the top two lines. Hopefully, they can produce.
Case is convinced that the league will continue to deliver a quality product.
Youre still going to have the hits and fights, he said. Theres still a lot of skill in this league, and its still going to be a good game.
NOTE: Hardy Sauter, who coached the Steelheads the previous two seasons, was selected to be inducted into the Central Hockey League Hall of Fame on Friday. Sauter, a two-time CHL Most Outstanding Defenseman, played nine years in the league and appeared in more all-star games (eight) than any other player.