NEW YORK — Negotiations to end the NHL lockout faced a critical tipping point Wednesday as the sides exchanged proposals again and the players' self-imposed deadline to dissolve their union passed with no action apparently being taken.
The union membership voted last month to authorize the leadership to disclaim interest, but only until midnight Wednesday. A disclaimer of interest would effectively dissolve the union and allow individual players to file antitrust suits against the NHL for continuing the lockout, which reaches its 110th day Thursday.
After the talks broke up around 1 a.m. Thursday, union executive director Donald Fehr would not say whether the union had filed to disclaim interest. It was an internal matter, he said. But media reports said a filing had not occurred.
Even if the union declined to disclaim interest Wednesday, the leadership could still do so at a later date, but only if the rank and file authorized it in another vote. The leadership will ask players for authorization again if talks don't soon produce a deal, ESPN reported.
Complicating talks Wednesday was a hitch over the players' pension fund, which is of great importance to the union. The union has proposed that players finance the pension plan but owners would be responsible for covering any potential shortfalls. The owners appeared to be balking at assuming that risk.
Under the collective bargaining agreement that expired in September, 75 percent of the pension fund was financed by the owners and 25 percent by the players.
The pension plan is a very complicated issue, "but that is something we understand is important to the players," commissioner Gary Bettman said after talks ended early Thursday.
The offers made by the union and then the league Wednesday were the fourth and fifth exchanged since Dec. 27, when the NHL extended a proposal that jump-started the current round of talks.
Fehr said the sides moved closer but a lot of work remained to be done. "The differences relate to the core economic issues," he said. They include the salary cap for the 2013-14 season. The league wants it at $60 million, the players in the $65 million-$67 million range. This season's cap is $70.2 million.
A federal mediator was brought back into the talks this week at the agreement of both sides, Bettman said. The mediator wanted the sides to reconvene at 10 a.m. Thursday, he said.
"As long as the process continues, I am hopeful," Bettman said.
Fehr said the union expected to continue bargaining. The group of players who have attended the talks this week include the Lightning's Marty St. Louis.
Bettman has said he wants the labor situation settled by Jan. 11 so a 48-game schedule could begin no later than Jan. 19.
That negotiations for a new agreement were reignited last week did not come as a complete shock to Lightning left wing Ryan Malone, who believes a stout players association forced owners to move some of their positions closer to those of the players.
"They probably thought we were going to cave in and they would get everything," Malone said after Wednesday's skate at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon. "Now they're like, 'Maybe we can get what we can get and move on.' "
Times staff writer Damian Cristodero contributed to this report.