Players voting again to dissolve union

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman remains hopeful.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman remains hopeful. –lucas jackson/reuters

NEW YORK — Hopes for a prompt settlement in the 110-day old NHL lockout were scuttled Thursday when players began voting to reauthorize Donald Fehr, the union’s executive director, to disclaim interest in representing the union.

If Fehr disclaims, it would effectively dissolve the union and open the way for players to file antitrust lawsuits against the league. The result of the vote is expected to be announced Saturday.

‘‘The players retain all the legal options they have always had,’’ said Fehr, who did not meet with commissioner Gary Bettman at Thursday’s sessions.

The threat of a disclaimer loomed over five hours of negotiations Wednesday, until a midnight deadline passed, a signal that talks would continue.


The union filed a motion Thursday in US District Court in New York, seeking dismissal of a league filing on Dec. 14 that said any union disclaimer of interest would be unlawful.

‘‘The NHL is using this suit in an attempt to force the players to remain in a union,’’ the memorandum said. ‘‘Not only is it virtually unheard of for an employer to insist on the unionization of its employees, it is also directly contradicted by the rights guaranteed to employees under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.’’

Judge Paul A. Engelmayer scheduled a hearing for Monday.

‘’The Court is mindful of the broader context in which this lawsuit has been filed: ongoing negotiations between the National Hockey League and its players which, if not resolved in short order, may imperil the remainder of the NHL season,’’ Engelmayer wrote.

The two sides brought in a federal mediator, Scot L. Beckenbaugh, this week, raising hopes that a settlement was possible by Jan. 11, which would allow a 48-game schedule to start by Jan. 19.

The sides were expected to reconvene Friday. ‘‘The mediation process continues,’’ said Gary Meagher, an NHL spokesman.

Any momentum gained from a long night of negotiations Wednesday seemed to have been lost Thursday when the sides remained mostly apart.


A meeting that Bettman said would begin at 10 a.m. EST didn’t start until several hours later, and then ended quickly.

That one hour of talks centered on the reporting of hockey-related revenues by teams, and both sides signing off on the figures at the end of the fiscal year. The problem was resolved.

The key issues that are still threatening the hockey season weren’t addressed early in the day, but a small group of players and other union staff returned to the NHL office shortly before 6 p.m., to hold another meeting regarding the pension plan. That wrapped up about two hours later.

Fehr didn’t take part in either of the two sessions Thursday.

With the lockout in its 110th day, both sides understand the urgency to save a season. They have several key issues to work out — pensions and salary cap limits among them.

Bettman has said a deal needs to be in place by next week so a 48-game season can begin Jan. 19.

All games through Jan. 14 along with the All-Star Game have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the schedule.

The sides met in small groups throughout the day Wednesday. They held a full bargaining session with a federal mediator at night that lasted nearly five hours and ended about 1 a.m. Thursday.

The biggest detail to emerge was that Fehr remained as union executive director after players passed on their first chance to declare a disclaimer that would turn the union into a trade association.


Neither side would characterize the talks Wednesday or say if there was any movement toward common ground.

‘‘There’s been some progress but we’re still apart on a number of issues,’’ Bettman said. ‘‘As long as the process continues I am hopeful.’’

Bettman called the pension plan a ‘‘very complicated issue.’’

‘‘The number of variables and the number of issues that have to be addressed are numerous and it’s easy to get off track,’’ Bettman said. ‘‘That is something we understand is important to the players.’’

The union’s proposal Wednesday makes four offers between the sides since the NHL restarted negotiations Thursday with a proposal. The league presented the players with a counteroffer Tuesday night in response to one the union made Monday.

Fehr believed an agreement on a players-funded pension had been reached before talks blew up in early December. That apparently wasn’t the case, or the NHL has changed its offer regarding the pension in exchange for agreeing to other things the union wanted.

The salary-cap number for the second year of the deal — 2013-14 — hasn’t been established, and it is another point of contention. The league is pushing for $60 million, the union wants $65 million.

In return for the higher cap number players would be willing to forgo a cap on escrow.

‘‘We talk about lots of things and we even had some philosophical discussions about why particular issues were important to each of us,’’ Bettman said. ‘‘That is part of the process.’’

The NHL proposed in its first offer Thursday that pension contributions come out of the players’ share of revenues, and $50 million of the league’s make-whole payment of $300 million will be allocated and set aside to fund potential underfunding liabilities of the plan at the end of the collective bargaining agreement.

Last month, the NHL agreed to raise its make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million as part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three nonnegotiable points. Instead, the union accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.

‘‘As you might expect, the differences between us relate to the core economic issues which don’t involve the share,’’ Fehr said of hockey-related revenue, which likely will be split 50-50.

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