(Reuters) - After three months of failed negotiations, the labor dispute between the National Hockey League (NHL) and locked out players moved into the courts on Friday, with the league filing a class action complaint against the players' union.
The league asked U.S. courts to confirm the legality of the lockout. It also filed an unfair labor practice against the players' union.
The players' union said the action had no merit.
The NHL's move appears to be a pre-emptive strike by the league after reports circulated that the NHL Players' Association (NHLPA) would seek a vote from its members to proceed with a "disclaim of interest" and no longer represent players in bargaining.
Dissolving the union would free players to file anti-trust lawsuits in the courts and have the lockout found illegal.
"Today, in response to information indicating that NHL players have or will be asked to vote to authorize the National Hockey League Players' Association's executive board to proceed to 'disclaim interest' in continuing to represent the players in collective bargaining, the National Hockey League filed a class action complaint in Federal Court in New York seeking a declaration confirming the ongoing legality of the lockout."
The league also said it was simultaneously filing an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that by threatening to "disclaim interest," the NHLPA is engaging in an unlawful subversion of the collective bargaining process and conduct that constitutes bad faith bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act.
The players' union said it had 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," the NHLPA said in a statement.
"We believe that their position is completely without merit."
Canadian media reported the players' union executive board agreed on Thursday to put a vote to the players that would authorize the board to proceed with a "disclaimer of interest."
The union would be dissolved with a favorable vote and players would cease being seen as a collective entity, enabling them to file anti-trust suits.
National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL) players pursued similar courses in 2011 labor disputes with their leagues before new collective bargaining agreements were eventually reached.
The legal maneuvering comes a day after the sides had spent two unsuccessful days with U.S. federal mediators trying to jump start stalled talks on a new collective bargaining agreement.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said he cannot see the league, which normally runs an 82-game regular season, playing less than a 48-game campaign. But with games through December, 42.8 percent of the schedule, already canceled, time is quickly running out on salvaging even a partial season.
The two sides appear to have inched closer on the main sticking point of how to divide $3.3 billion in revenue.
The league is seeking an immediate 50-50 split while players, who will see their share chopped from 57 percent, want the cuts brought in gradually with a "make whole" provision in place to cover money that would be lost on current contracts.
Several other contentious items remain on the table, including the length of a new collective bargaining agreement and contract limits to drug testing and continued participation in the Winter Olympics.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto and Gene Cherry in Salvo, North Carolina, Editing by Greg Stutchbury)