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NEW YORK -- The NHL Players' Association moved one step closer Friday toward dissolving the union, voting to authorize its executive board the discretion to file a "disclaimer of interest," multiple sources confirmed to ESPN.com.
The affirmative vote, the result of a five-day ballot among the 700-plus players, allows the executive board to disband the union if and when it chooses to do so.
Sources said 706 players voted in favor of disbanding the union, while 22 voted against it.
The executive board now has until Jan. 2 to make a decision on whether to file the disclaimer of interest -- a quicker, less-formal way of decertification.
Breaking up the NHLPA would prohibit the players from collectively bargaining as a union, though it would allow them to file an antitrust lawsuit against the league.
Whether the battle actually gets taken to court, however, remains to be seen.
The NHL already has launched a pre-emptive countermove, filing a class-action complaint in federal court in New York, as well as an unfair labor practice charge against the NHLPA with the National Labor Relations Board.
The affirmative vote comes one day after the league made another round of cancellations, axing all regular-season games through Jan. 14.
The two sides have not had a face-to-face meeting since a failed attempt at mediation Dec. 13 in New Jersey. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and players' association special counsel Steve Fehr spoke on the telephone Saturday, but no bargaining sessions have been scheduled.
The NHL is already the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labor dispute, losing the 2004-05 campaign to a lockout.
The NBA's most recent labor dispute ended less than two weeks after the union was disbanded. Jeffrey Kessler, the lead negotiator for the National Basketball Players Association in that dispute, contends the NHLPA would be wise to go ahead with the "disclaimer of interest."
"I think this is much more likely to lead to a settlement sooner," Kessler told The Canadian Press last week. "The players have concluded that they are on the verge of possibly deciding that it is better not to be a union and using the antitrust laws to attack the lockout, which all fans should be happy with because it'll work."
The league's board of governors discussed the possibility of a disclaimer of interest on Dec. 5, and commissioner Gary Bettman said the NHL didn't see it as a significant threat.
"We don't view it in the same way in terms of its impact as apparently the union may," Bettman said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.