NHL players began voting Sunday on whether they will grant the players' association's executive board the authority to dissolve the union because of the inability to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the league.
Two-thirds of the union's membership must vote in favour of allowing the executive board to file a "disclaimer of interest," a source told The Canadian Press on Saturday. Votes will be cast electronically over a five-day period that ends Thursday. If the measure passes, the 30-member executive board would have until Jan. 2 to file the disclaimer.
The union is taking steps toward breaking up even after the NHL started mounting a legal challenge against it.
On Friday, the NHL filed a class-action complaint which asked a federal court in New York to make a declaration on the legality of the lockout.
In the 43-page complaint, the league argued the players' association was only considering the "disclaimer of interest" to "extract more favorable terms and conditions of employment."
"The union has threatened to pursue this course not because it is defunct or otherwise incapable of representing NHL players for purposes of collective bargaining, nor because NHL players are dissatisfied with the representation they have been provided by the NHLPA," the NHL complaint said. "The NHLPA's threatened decertification or disclaimer is nothing more than an impermissible negotiating tactic, which the union incorrectly believes would enable it to commence an antitrust challenge to the NHL's lockout."
The NHL also filed an unfair labour practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board.
The union issued a statement on Friday night that claimed the league overstepped its bounds.
"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," the statement said. "We believe that their position is completely without merit."
By filing the class-action complaint in New York, the league guaranteed that the legality of the lockout would be decided in a court known to be sympathetic toward management. If the NHLPA dissolves it will seek to have the lockout deemed illegal — something that could result in players being paid triple their lost salary in damages if successful.
Despite the focus of the lockout shifting from the board room to the courtroom, there is nothing preventing the sides from continuing to try to negotiate with each another. They met separately over two days with a U.S. federal mediator this week in New Jersey, but failed to make any progress. No further talks are currently scheduled.
Just eight years after becoming the first North American professional sports league to lose an entire season to a labour dispute, the NHL is in danger of repeating it.
Players have already missed five paycheques during the lockout that enters its 14th week. More than 500 regular-season games through Dec. 30 have been wiped off the schedule.