EDMONTON - The Alberta Labour Relations Board has decided that the NHL's lockout of players from the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames can continue.
The board said in a written ruling released Wednesday that forcing an end to the lockout for two members of a 30-team league would be unlikely to solve the contract dispute between the National Hockey League and the players' union.
"It is our expectation this is nothing more than an unhelpful distraction from their efforts," the ruling said. "An order declaring the lockout to be in violation of the (Alberta Labour Relations) Code would have no positive impact on this dispute."
The National Hockey League Players' Association had wanted the board to rule the lockout illegal in Alberta.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league was pleased with the ruling.
"We are hopeful that this will enable both the league and the NHL Players' Association to focus all our efforts and energies on negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement in order to get our game and our players back on the ice," Daly said in a statement.
A release from the NHLPA said the union was considering its options.
"The players are obviously disappointed with today's decision," the statement read. "Unfortunately, the Alberta Labour Relations Board decided not to exercise its discretion to determine whether the owners' lockout violates Alberta law."
The labour board held a hearing into the dispute last month.
The union had argued that the Oilers and Flames are Alberta businesses and as such must abide by provincial labour rules. Those rules say a mediator must have 14 days to work with both sides in a contract dispute before a lockout vote can be held.
The NHL had applied for a mediator in Alberta, but informed the board after three days that it didn't believe meetings would have to be held.
Lawyers for the NHL told the board that the league has always bargained as a unit and not through individual teams and argued that the league needs to operate under one set of labour laws to function.
The labour board didn't answer the question as to whether the league should come under its jurisdiction. It noted that both the league and the players have made arguments under the laws of various jurisdictions depending on circumstances.
But it did decide that it had discretion under the law not to issue a ruling at all if it felt that would be the best way to get the two sides back to the bargaining table.
"This is a case where it makes labour relations sense to exercise our discretion not to make a declaration of unlawful conduct and not to issue any remedy," the board said.
Meanwhile in New York, the NHL and the NHLPA met for five hours but the talks did little to move the sides closer to a deal in the nearly one-month work stoppage.
Daly and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman met with the NHLPA's main negotiators—executive director Donald Fehr and special counsel Steve Fehr—for nearly an hour in the morning to assess where the sides were on Day 25 of the dispute, but there was no concrete discussions on the troublesome core economic issues preventing a deal.
A four-hour session that stretched into Wednesday evening centred on player health and safety issues, along with other miscellaneous legal topics.
The health issues involved seeking multiple medical opinions on injuries, and who should make determinations when a player is healthy enough to return to action after being hurt.
"We have some disagreements in those areas," Daly said. "When you get to this point of the discussions on some of those areas, that is to be expected so we're kind of refining some of the things we continue to have disagreements on.
"We had no discussion of the major economic issues or system issues, so that continues to be a disappointment from our perspective."
The sides will meet again Thursday—which would have been the opening day of the NHL's regular season—but there are still no plans to delve into how the sides will split up hockey-related revenue that was in excess of US$3 billion last season.
Steve Fehr took a more optimistic view of what was discussed Wednesday, but lamented that the discussions were taking place instead of action on the ice.
"You often don't know whether you're making progress until you look back on it," he said. "We were just sort of discussing the overall status of the bargaining and where the parties are."
The NHL is eager to get a new proposal from the union on the main economic issues, but the players contend that they have moved closer to the league's demands in their previous offers while the NHL has only sought to take more away from the union in each proposal it has made.
"I think we're making progress in a number of the areas that were discussed today," Steve Fehr said. "They were good discussions. It's a shame that they are going on in the midst of a lockout when we could be doing it while we're playing or we could've been doing it a month ago or two months ago.
"I wouldn't say (talks) are dead in the water. The sides are in constant communication. I think we have a pretty good sense of where each other is."
However, Donald Fehr has floated the idea that the longer the lockout goes on, the players might seek to make an offer that doesn't include a salary cap—the very issue that led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season. The collective bargaining agreement that finally ended that lockout seven years ago expired last month.
"None of those comments were a surprise to me," Daly said. "If that is the direction they choose to go in, that's up to them. I don't make the decisions for them. They've suggested they want to get the players back on the ice soon. I can pretty much assure you if they make that proposal, it won't get the players back on the ice soon."
If discussions can get jump-started, the sides haven't ruled out meeting again on Friday. Two weeks of the regular season have already been wiped out—at least temporarily—and if a deal isn't struck soon, more games could soon be lost.
For now, Daly and the NHL just want to hear something new from the union.
"We're trying to think of ideas to move the process forward," he said. "Our message to the players' association was we're encouraging them to make a proposal. We hear, we understand that they have been working on some concepts, some ideas. We've suggested to them to just make the proposal.
"Any movement is better than no movement at all. If we move sideways, hopefully we move it forward. But even if we move backward, it might be better than where we are now."
These were the first negotiations since the sides held an unannounced meeting in Toronto on Friday to discuss where they were and how to move the process forward.
The NHL has already cancelled the first two weeks of the regular season, wiping out 82 games from Thursday through Oct. 24.
Daly estimated the NHL lost $100 million from the cancellation of the entire pre-season and another $140 million to $150 million with the regular-season losses.
"It's unfortunate for both of us," he said. "It's a significant amount of money that the players share in on a significant basis. Whatever that percentage ends up being, it's a significant basis.
"Even more disappointing from should be from our collective perspective is we felt like over the last seven years we've built up a lot of momentum in the business, we've had a lot of growth, and who knows what a work stoppage from this will do to our momentum."
—With files from The Associated Press