NEW YORK — Hockey players are sticking together as a union for now and are working long and late hours with the NHL to try to reach a new collective bargaining agreement to get the game back on the ice.
The sides met in small groups throughout the day Wednesday and then held a full-scale bargaining session with a federal mediator at night that lasted nearly five hours and didn’t wrap up until about 1 a.m. Thursday.
They planned to get back at it less than 10 hours later.
The biggest detail to emerge from Wednesday night’s marathon talks was that Donald Fehr is still the executive director of the players’ association, which passed on its first chance to declare a disclaimer that would dissolve the union and turn it into a trade association.
Last month, players voted overwhelmingly in favor of giving the union executive board the right to declare the disclaimer, but that permission expired at midnight Wednesday. The disclaimer would allow individual players to file antitrust lawsuits against the NHL.
Fehr wouldn’t address the issue at all, calling it an “internal matter,” but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said all the union would need to do is inform the league that it was taking the action for it to happen.
“The word disclaimer has yet to be uttered to us by the players’ association,” Bettman said. “It’s not that it gets filed anywhere with a court or the NLRB. When you disclaim interest as a union, you notify the other side. We have not been notified and it’s never been discussed, so there has been no disclaimer.”
Even though the deadline expired, a new vote by players can be held anytime to restore the authorization.
“All I can tell you about that is the players retain all the legal options they have always had and we don’t talk about legal matters,” Fehr said.
The thought was that the union wouldn’t take action Wednesday if it saw progress was being made. Neither side would characterize the talks or address what, if any, movement toward common ground was reached.
Both the league and the players were tightlipped about how many things still need to be worked out and what topics are keeping them apart. But the discussions went well enough for the NHL and the union to agree to the mediator’s request to start talking again at 10 a.m. Thursday.
“I’m not going to get into the details,” Bettman said. “There’s been some progress but we’re still apart on a number of issues. As long as the process continues I am hopeful.”
Bettman has told the union that a deal must be in place by Jan. 11 in order for a 48-game season to be played beginning eight days later.
The night session Wednesday began shortly after 8 p.m. EST. The sides also met for about an hour during the afternoon when the union gave its latest proposal to the league, a response to the NHL’s counteroffer on Tuesday.
Neither side said much regarding Wednesday’s discussions, but it is believed that the pension issue has become a major stumbling block.