The NHL lockout took an interesting turn on Friday, as the NHLPA announced the players would be voting this week on a potential move to dissolve the union, prompting the league to take legal steps to block that possibility.
On Sunday, the players started to vote on whether or not to allow the PA’s executive committee to file a disclaimer of interest if it chooses. That would allow PA executive director Donald Fehr to claim the union no longer represents its membership and provide the players the opportunity to file anti-trust lawsuits against the NHL.
It takes a two-thirds majority of the PA membership to authorize disclaimer and, if approved, would have to be filed with the US National Labor Relations Board by Jan. 2, 2013.
To counter this possibility, the NHL filed a class action complaint with a federal court in New York to declare the legality of its lockout. In its complaint, the league states disclaimer is merely a ploy by the players to extract better terms and conditions of employment from the league.
The league also filed a complaint with the NLRB, accusing the PA of failing to negotiate in good faith.
These moves are seen as the transition of the NHL labor standoff from the boardroom to the courtroom. Some observers see these legal machinations as mere posturing by both sides, which could hasten the end of the lockout.
Others, however, suggest these moves signal a dark turn, which will lead to months of legal wrangling and another lost NHL season.
A key section of the league’s 43-page class action complaint caught the eyes of some pundits.
In Section 14, the league threatens if the NLRB doesn’t rule the union’s disclaimer invalid and CBA negotiations fail to continue, all existing NHL player contracts would be “void and unenforceable.”
In other words, every player currently under contract – including the league’s biggest stars – would all become unrestricted free agents.
The Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch cited a union source who wondered how Pittsburgh Penguins ownership would feel about Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin becoming UFAs overnight and available to the highest bidder, or Tampa Bay with Steven Stamkos, or Minnesota with recent additions Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Larry Brooks of the New York Post suggested long-struggling teams such as the Columbus Blue Jackets, or clubs with hawkish owners such as Boston’s Jeremy Jacobs, might find it difficult to find players willing to sign with them.
It would certainly create a frenzy of free agent movement unlike anything seen in NHL history and would significantly change current rosters.
NHL fans shouldn’t get their hopes up over the prospect of their favorite team signing away the top talent from other clubs. The possibility every NHL player could soon become a free agent appears remote.
The NHL is trying to rattle players under contract in hopes of forcing them to reject the disclaimer route and pressure the PA executive to accept the league’s latest CBA offer.
Voiding those contracts is no certainty. As TSN legal analyst Eric Macramalla recently noted via Twitter, it would prove “an uphill battle” for the league, pointing out the NBA asked for the same thing. “Relying on 1998 NBA arbitration decision – not binding,” wrote Macramalla.
He also suggested a judge might not want to strike down the player contracts unless it is specifically stated in those contracts that they’re void under these circumstances.
Comparisons have been made to the NBA’s labor dispute a year ago, which ended within 12 days of its players filing a disclaimer of interest. Some observers suggest the threat of disclaimer from the NHLPA could result in a similar end to the NHL lockout.
The NHL’s labor history, however, has been more contentious over the past two decades than the NBA’s, including an entire season lost to the previous lockout. There are enough bad feelings on both sides to suggest this could get much worse.
It’ll be interesting to see if the prospect – however vague – of the NHL’s best players becoming available to the highest bidders spurs both sides toward a season-saving CBA.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.