TORONTO - A critical vote is set to begin today that will determine if the NHL labour battle moves from the negotiating table to the courtroom.
The players are casting their ballots on whether or not to give their executive board the authority to dissolve the NHL Players' Association.
Doing so would allow the board to file a disclaimer of interest, which is a step toward disbanding the union and giving the players the chance to file anti-trust lawsuits against the league.
Two-thirds of the union's membership must vote in favour of the move over a five-day period that ends Thursday, then the union executive board must respond.
The league has already taken some pre-emptive action after it filed a class-action complaint on Friday that asked a federal court in New York to make a declaration on the legality of the lockout.
The NHL also filed an unfair labour practice charge with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board.
The union was quick to respond with a statement on Friday night that suggested the league was overstepping its bounds. At that point, it had yet to even be served with the lawsuit.
"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," it read. "We believe that their position is completely without merit."
By filing the class-action complaint in New York, the NHL guaranteed that the legality of the lockout would be decided in a court known to be sympathetic towards management. If the NHLPA files for a "disclaimer of interest" it will seek to have the work stoppage deemed illegal — something that could see players 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 one another. They met separately over two days with a U.S. federal mediator this week in New Jersey but failed to make any progress.
Just eight years after becoming the first North American sports league to lose an entire season to a labour dispute, the NHL appears to be in danger of seeing another one go by the wayside.
Players have already missed five paycheques during a lockout that enters its 14th week on Sunday. More than 500 regular-season games through Dec. 30 have been wiped off the 2012-13 schedule.