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Labor talks at near standstill as season deadline looms

(Reuters) - Negotiations on a labor deal between the National Hockey League (NHL) and locked out players ground to a near standstill on Thursday, with time running out on salvaging even a partial season.

The optimism that surrounded talks on Wednesday vanished quickly as the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) dialed up the pressure, calling on the membership to vote again to give their executive board the power to file a disclaimer of interest that would dissolve the union and free individual players to file anti-trust lawsuits against the league.

The move came less than 24 hours after the union opted not to play the disclaimer card and let a self-imposed Wednesday midnight deadline pass, allowing negotiations to continue into the late evening.

However, the mood had changed dramatically when the two parties returned to the bargaining table early on Thursday afternoon with talks limited to small group discussions that did not include NHLPA chief Donald Fehr.

With very little bargaining taking place, the focus shifted to tactics and legal maneuvering, with the union going to court on Thursday to ask a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the league.

The dispute moved to court last month after reports circulated that the NHLPA would seek a vote from its members to proceed with a "disclaim of interest" and the NHL launched a pre-emptive strike asking to have the lockout declared legal.

In its court filing, lawyers for the NHLPA argued that the lawsuit filed by the league was premature and that it should be dismissed.

"They ask the court to simply assume the outcome of events that had not yet taken place at the time the complaint was filed, and then decree what the law would be on the basis of those assumptions," wrote lawyers for the players.

U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer of Manhattan immediately responded to the players' request by issuing an order scheduling a January 7 conference to establish a case-management plan for the litigation that "may enhance, and does not needlessly inhibit, the parties' ability to resolve their disputes with dispatch".

With more than half the season already wiped out and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman having set a January 19 deadline for the puck to drop on a shortened 48-game schedule, time is running out on the league and players to get a deal done.

There had been indications the two sides were inching closer to agreement on major issues - such has how to split $3.3 billion in revenue - contract lengths, revenue sharing and length of the new collective bargaining agreement but they remain far apart on others.

Player pension plans and how they are funded has suddenly popped up as the hot topic, along with where the salary cap ceiling should be set.

The league wants a cap locked in at $60 million while the players are believed to be seeking something in the $65-67 million range.

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto, Additional reporting by Andrew Longstreth; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)

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