NEW YORK, N.Y. – Less than a day after letting a self-imposed deadline pass to declare a “disclaimer of interest,” NHL players began voting to restore their executive board’s authority to dissolve the union.
The NHLPA’s membership began voting on the disclaimer at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday, according to a source. It will be conducted over a 48-hour period.
The first vote, held over five days last month, passed overwhelmingly. Should the same thing happen again and the NHLPA elects to notify the league it is disclaiming, it would open the door for players to file anti-trust lawsuits.
The new disclaimer vote was part of a busy Thursday that saw much more action away from the bargaining room than in it. The NHLPA also filed its statement of defence with the district court in New York, arguing that the lawsuit filed by the NHL last month should be dismissed because it was brought forward for “strategic reasons.”
The league had asked the court to rule on the legality of the lockout in a move considered to be a pre-emptive strike to a potential “disclaimer of interest” from the NHLPA. The union had until Jan. 7 to make a response and filed its paperwork with the court a few days early.
Against that backdrop, the sides only met for about an hour on Thursday afternoon — a departure from more frequent negotiations in recent days. NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr led a group of players and staff into the session with U.S. federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh while his brother Don stayed out of talks.
It was unclear when negotiations would resume.
A good stretch of bargaining this week has produced some progress towards ending the labour dispute, including an apparent agreement between the sides to allow each team up to two compliance buyouts prior to the 2013-14 season. Those would allow teams to terminate player contracts without being penalized against the salary cap, although the buyout amounts would count against the players’ overall share in revenue.
The sides had also secured agreement on a 20 per cent yearly salary variance in contracts, an improvement from the NHL’s previous demand of 10 per cent.
However, the salary cap range for the 2013-14 season — the first full one under the new CBA — remained a significant hurdle, according to sources. The union is seeking a $65-million cap and a $44-million floor. The league has proposed an upper limit of $60 million with a lower limit of $44 million.
The biggest concern for players is that lowering the cap by so much in the transition to a 50-50 split of revenue will result in a huge dispersal of talent.
“It’s an arbitrary number that they’ve come up with,” Canucks forward Manny Malhotra said Thursday in Vancouver. “Logistically, there’s no sense to lowering it that much. We’ve come off our stance (of $67.5 million) and offered a $65-million cap to bring that number down. But a $60-million cap would just mean guys who ordinarily wouldn’t be bought out or traded would be bought out or traded.
“So you’re messing not just with the system, but you’re messing with guys’ lives. Guys have to move around, move families around, that normally wouldn’t have to. It’s really a non-starter for us. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”
There is also lingering disagreement over who would shoulder the financial liability in a switch to a defined benefit pension plan for players.
“It’s a very complicated issue,” commissioner Gary Bettman said early Thursday morning. “The number of variables and the number of issues that have to be addressed by people who carry the title actuary or pension lawyer are pretty numerous and it’s pretty easy to get off track.
“But that’s something that we understand is important to the players and if we can get the issues resolved we’re hopeful we can satisfy the players on that issue but that’s still a work in progress.”
With no agreement in sight, the financial losses are mounting for both sides.
The league was hoping a 52-game schedule could be squeezed in if a deal was reached this week and training camps opened over the weekend. Bettman has set a deadline of Jan. 11 to preserve a 48-game season, the minimum he says the NHL is willing to consider playing.
The difference in those two formats alone would cost the average player $120,000, based on an average yearly salary of $2.4 million and the gap between their projected pro-rated salaries. The combined loss of 60 extra events in buildings around the league would be even more for owners.
Clearly, it’s something to think about. But with the lockout reaching its 110th day, there was still no deal yet in sight.