NEW YORK -- The NHL Players' Association moved one step closer to disbanding the union with a preliminary vote toward disclaiming interest, and the NHL responded with a pre-emptive strike of its own as the two sides appear to be headed for what could be a nasty court battle.
Upon learning the NHLPA's executive board voted Thursday night potentially to dissolve the union, the NHL filed a class-action complaint in federal court as well as a Unfair Labor Practice Charge with the National Labor Relations Board.
A source confirmed to ESPN.com that the union's executive board voted unanimously Thursday ght to authorize a vote among the union's membership at-large. The membership's vote would determine if the executive board could vote on whether to file a disclaimer of interest. A disclaimer of interest is a quicker, less formal way of dissolving the union, as opposed to decertification, which can take months.
Although that does not mean the vote necessarily will take place, it provides the players the option to gauge whether their membership feels the need to vote to dissolve the union. The vote is expected to take place in the near future.
In the United States, antitrust laws prohibit owners from locking out employees who don't belong to a union, with the punishment triple the wages lost during the lockout. As long as the NHL players continue to negotiate under executive director Donald Fehr as part of the NHLPA, they don't receive that protection.
But if they're no longer a union through decertification, that changes the dynamics of the entire lockout. Then, they can file antitrust lawsuits, targeting the wallets of their owners.
The NHL did not remain idle as the NHLPA debated the move, filing both a class-action complaint in federal court and an Unfair Labor Practice Charge with the National Labor Relations Board.
The league's filing with the federal court in New York City is an attempt to affirm the legality of the lockout, an issue players are sure to challenge.
The NHLPA already challenged the legality of the lockout in two Canadian provinces. Both requests for an injunction against the work stoppage were denied, although a hearing before the Quebec Labour Relations Board has yet to be adjudicated. A hearing that was supposed to take place last week was postponed because of the ongoing negotiations.
According to the Unfair Labor Practice Charge filing, obtained by ESPNNewYork.com, the NHL alleges the NHLPA's threat to disclaim interest as an "obvious bargaining tactic given the ongoing negotiations and the lack of progress toward a resolution." The filing further characterizes the potential action as a "ploy," an "unlawful subversion" of the collective bargaining process and a "perversion" of the NLRB procedure.
The filing contends that "the union will not be defunct or otherwise irrevocably removed from the decades-long NHL/NHLPA collective bargaining relationship," thereby violating Section 8 (b) (3) of the National Labor Relations Act.
According to the document, the NHLPA's executive board has until Jan. 2, 2013, to disclaim interest.
The union replied to the league's lawsuit in a release, saying: "The NHLPA has just received a copy of the National Labor Relations Board charge and has not yet been served with the lawsuit. However, based on what we've learned so far, 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. We believe that their position is completely without merit."
An email went out to players explaining what the process would entail, a source told ESPNNewYork.com, although it did not spell out any immediate action on an imminent vote.
The NHL and NHLPA held a conference call Friday on which they discussed transition rules and compliance issues.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly declined to comment on the league's actions Friday. Players' association special counsel Steve Fehr, meanwhile, declined to comment on the lawsuits or to confirm the union's plans regarding a so-called disclaimer of interest.
Fehr, who took part in the conference call earlier Friday, said the league didn't make its legal plans known during its discussions.
The two sides have no further meetings scheduled. The league and union tried federal mediation to re-ignite negotiations earlier this week, but those sessions yielded nothing in the way of progress.
Information from ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun and The Associated Press was used in this report.