The NHL fell back on an old ploy last week, engaging the owners and general managers to make direct appeals to the players about their latest offer for a collective agreement.
NHL Players' Association special counsel Steve Fehr was not impressed, saying in a statement, "Most owners are not allowed to attend bargaining meetings. No owners are allowed to speak to the media about the bargaining. It is interesting that they are secretly unleashed to talk to the players about the meetings the players can attend, but the owners cannot."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was aware this tactic would raise questions about unfair labour practices, as a memo to the owners and general managers obtained by Yahoo! Sports warned them how to deal with the players. They were advised only to respond to questions from players and not to attempt anything that could be called negotiating.
The memo was also careful to imply that the league became aware the contact was initiated by the players. That could not be immediately confirmed.
There was no immediate response from the NHLPA about looking into filing a charge of unfair labour practices with federal labour-relations boards in the United States and Canada.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an e-mail message he is "confident" the league did not commit any unfair labour practices. He also said the league has not heard from the NHLPA about the matter.
Bettman has a gag order on the 30 NHL owners and all league executives against speaking about the lockout and any related labour issues. Fines for speaking publicly are stiff, and the Detroit Red Wings were clipped for $250,000 (all currency U.S.) a few weeks ago when vice-president Jim Devellano made a few remarks.
A report from the Quebec television network TVA Sports said Bettman gave the NHL owners and GMs 48 hours to approach the players about the offer last Thursday and Friday, a day after the league posted the offer on its web site. The owners offered the players a 50-50 split of revenue but it was rejected and followed by three counter-offers from the union, which were quickly rejected by the NHL.
In the memo sent to NHL executives, the league implied it was the players who made the first contact but warned labour rules had to be followed.
"We understand that some of you are being contacted by one or more of your players," the memo read. "A failure to follow these rules can both set us back in our effort to resolve this work stoppage and cause serious legal problems.
"The NHLPA is, in fact and in law, the sole collective bargaining representative of the Players. Any effort to motivate the Players must be to have them act through their union, not instead of or in opposition to it.
"YOU MAY NOT: 'Negotiate' with a Player.' This means you may not explore alternatives or variations to the proposals on the table. As a matter of labor law, you are permitted to express the views and opinions of the Club and the League concerning the proposal."
This is not the first time either side has attempted an end-around on the labour negotiations. There was contact by the owners with the players in the 1994-95 lockout and in 2004-05 it happened again. However, as the union ranks started splintering in 2004-05, there was contact from the players' side as well.
The most well-known example came late in the 2004-05 lockout when Toronto Maple Leafs chairman Larry Tanenbaum attended a meeting with Mario Lemieux, who was still a player as well as owner for the Pittsburgh Penguins, that was brokered by one of Tanenbaum's players, Tie Domi. But the attempt to end the stalemate failed and the lockout continued through the entire season.