NHL files suit, labor charge against union

NEW YORK (AP) Anticipating a possible antitrust suit, the NHL is bringing its labor fight against players to federal court.

The league announced Friday that it has filed a class action suit in
the U.S. District Court in New York, seeking to establish that its now
90-day lockout is legal.

In a separate
move, the NHL filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National
Labor Relations Board, claiming the players’ association has bargained
in bad faith.

The NHL said it believes
the union’s executive board is seeking authorization to give up its
collective bargaining rights, a necessary step before players could file
an antitrust lawsuit.

NHL deputy
commissioner Bill Daly declined to comment on the league’s actions
Friday. The moves were made after the sides held a bargaining
teleconference, following two days of talks that included federal
mediators.

Players’ association special
counsel Steve Fehr, meanwhile, declined to comment on the lawsuits or to
confirm the union’s plans regarding a so-called disclaimer of interest.
But the union issued a statement Friday night to address the NHL’s
actions.

“The NHLPA has just received a
copy of the National Labor Relations Board charge and has not yet been
served with the lawsuit,” the statement said. “However, based on what
we’ve learned so far, the NHL appears to be arguing that players should
be stopped from even considering their right to decide whether or not to
be represented by a union. We believe that their position is completely
without merit.”

Fehr, who took part in
the conference call earlier Friday, said the league didn’t make its
legal plans known during its discussions.

If players choose to pursue a disclaimer of interest, the union would
essentially stop being a collective group to negotiate a labor deal with
the NHL. The Canadian Press, citing unidentified sources, said that the
union’s executive board requested a vote from its membership on
Thursday night that would give it the authority to file a disclaimer.

Such a move wouldn’t necessarily doom the entire hockey season that has already been long-delayed and shortened.

During the NBA lockout last year, the basketball union made a similar
move. But negotiations continued anyway and a tentative agreement was
reached within a couple of weeks.

The
union then reformed in time for players to ratify the new deal and begin
a shortened season. NFL players took the same route last year, as well.

By filing the complaint in New York,
the NHL guaranteed that the legality of the lockout would be decided in a
court known to be sympathetic toward management. The league is
concerned that if the union dissolves and seeks to have the lockout
deemed illegal, players could be due triple their lost salaries if they
are successful.

The sides had spent the
previous two days in talks with mediators in New Jersey. On Wednesday,
union officials and league brass spoke separately to mediators and not
with each other. There were face- to-face talks between the sides on
Thursday, but no progress of note was achieved.

Without the presence of mediators on Friday, a small group of
negotiators — four aside without Commissioner Gary Bettman or union
executive director Donald Fehr taking part — got on the conference
call.

The NHL is looking for an even
split of revenues with the players. When it agreed last week to increase
an offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million — a
package aimed at making the lower percentage of revenue easier for the
union to take — it was part of a proposed package that required the
union to agree on three nonnegotiable points. Instead, the players’
association accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals
on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.

All games through Dec. 30 have been canceled, 43 percent of the
season, along with the New Year’s Day Winter Classic and the All-Star
game.

A 48-game season was played in
1995 after a lockout stretched into January. Bettman said he wouldn’t
have a shorter season than that. The 2004-05 season was lost completely
to a labor dispute.