The NHL and its locked-out players might turn up in a courtroom before they find their way back onto the ice.
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In a wild week in which the fighting sides had two fruitless sessions with a federal mediator and another round of bargaining via conference call, the most significant event occurred Friday night when the NHL brought its ongoing dispute with the players to federal court after the league anticipated a possible antitrust suit.
The league filed a class action suit Friday in 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 legal actions. 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, told The Associated Press in an email that the league didn’t make its legal plans known during that day’s 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 Wednesday and Thursday in talks with mediators in New Jersey. On the first day, 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.