NHL players gave the executive board the right to take steps to dissolve the union, and they signed off on it in overwhelming fashion.
In a vote this week, union members decisively agreed to give the players' association's board the power to file a "disclaimer of interest" until Jan. 2. A person familiar with the outcome of the vote told The Associated Press on Friday that the measure was approved by a vote of 706-22 (97 percent), easily reaching the two-thirds majority required.
The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the results of the vote hadn't been announced.
The executive board hasn't made plans yet to meet to discuss whether to file the disclaimer, but if the Jan. 2 deadline passes, another authorization vote could be held to approve a later filing.
If the filing is made, the union would dissolve and become a trade association. That would allow players to file antitrust lawsuits against the NHL.
Negotiations between the NHL and the union have been at a standstill since talks ended Dec. 6. No bargaining is scheduled, and time is running short to save the season. All games through Jan. 14 have been canceled, more than half the season. The New Year's Day Winter Classic and All-Star game already are victims of the lockout, which reached 97 days on Friday.
It is believed that a new labor agreement would need to be in place by about mid-January to salvage a 48-game schedule, the minimum in Commissioner Gary Bettman's opinion for the season to proceed.
The NHL is already the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labor dispute, losing the 2004-05 campaign to a lockout.
The NHLPA now appears set to follow the lead set by NFL and NBA players. Both dissolved their unions during lockouts last year.
The legality of the lockout is already set to be tried in U.S. federal court after the NHL filed a class-action lawsuit last week against the NHLPA. The NHL also submitted an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board.
The NBA's labor dispute ended less than two weeks after the union was disbanded. Jeffrey Kessler, the lead negotiator for the National Basketball Players Association in that dispute, contends the NHLPA would be wise to go ahead with the "disclaimer of interest."
"I think this is much more likely to lead to a settlement sooner," Kessler told The Canadian Press last week. "The players have concluded that they are on the verge of possibly deciding that it is better not to be a union and using the antitrust laws to attack the lockout, which all fans should be happy with because it'll work."
The league's Board of Governors discussed the possibility of a "disclaimer of interest" on Dec. 5, and Bettman said the NHL didn't see it as a significant threat.
"We don't view it in the same way in terms of its impact as apparently the union may," Bettman said.