NEW YORK — The NHL players association continued to talk softly in negotiations with the league Thursday but moved to retain its big stick: the threat to dissolve as a union and open the way for individual players to file antitrust suits against the league.
Thursday morning, the 110th day of the lockout, the union prepared for a two-day vote by its membership to authorize the executive board to disclaim interest and dissolve the union if negotiations bogged down. The measure was expected to be approved by a wide margin.
Players voted overwhelmingly last month to authorize a dissolution by midnight Wednesday, but union executive director Donald Fehr let the deadline to disclaim interest pass, a move seen as promoting continued dialogue with the league.
The threat to dissolve was seen by many as spurring commissioner Gary Bettman and the league to negotiate in earnest. The latest round of talks was kick-started by a league offer Dec. 27 and included a late-night session that ended at 1 a.m. Thursday.
The sides also brought in a federal mediator to assist this week, raising hopes a settlement was possible by Jan. 11, which would allow a 48-game schedule to start by Jan. 19. But despite the earnest tenor of the talks, the union does not want to relinquish what it believes is a strong, effective option.
A small group of players led by union special counsel Steve Fehr met Thursday afternoon for about an hour at the NHL office in Manhattan to discuss penalties for teams caught hiding hockey-related revenue. Among the players in New York for negotiations is the Lightning's Marty St. Louis.
Discussions continued into the evening on some outstanding issues. A small group of union staff members and players met with the NHL to continue working on pension issues.
That followed almost six hours of talks the previous day. The sides remained apart on several issues, but the league increased the number of buyouts each team would get for salary cap compliance from one to two, and the players agreed to drop demands for a cap on escrow.
Both moves were designed to help clubs make a transition to a lower salary cap for the 2013-14 season. The league wants to decrease the cap from $70.2 million this season to $60 million; the players have proposed a cap next season at $65 million to $67 million.
The sides were expected to get back together with the mediator this morning.
The union made one legal move Thursday, filing a memorandum of law in U.S. District Court in New York. The memorandum sought dismissal of an earlier league filing, made Dec. 14, that sought to declare unlawful any disclaimer of interest by the union.