Over the years (well, only two of them but it makes it plural and us sound more prolific), Shepso and myself have occasionally writtern about the French philosopher Michel Foucault: here is a piece on Penner and Power that I wrote, and Shepso had a great two parter on the Press Box as a Panopticon. Today I am going to look at his idea of resistance in relation to my favourite topic on the Oilers—their defensive play of the team. (note: Attention needs to be paid to the term of 'defense' as I have learned from Shepso. While I did not intend to play on the slippage between defense as a position in hockey and defence as a strategy in hockey, I think Foucault would proud of this as a tactic to create confusion and make folks think about hockey in terms of philosophy.)
First to understand defense these days we have to look to the changes that have occurred over the last ten or plus years, especially on how it effects the blueline. We can perceive the changes of the defensive strategy in the late 20th century and more so in the 21st century and the lockout, in a parallel tradictory to Foucault’s changes in political strategy in the 19th century. The change, in politics, that is identified by Foucault as a movement from sovereign politics to a biopolitics, or “one might say that the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” (History of Sexuality. Vol. 1. 1990. P. 138). Before the shift in defensive strategy, it was the prerogative of the rearguard (the sovereign, or absolute power, of the crease and the corner) on whether to let the opposition forward live or attempt to take his live: as typified by the Kevin Lowe and Lee Fogolin in this classic. Now after the shift, the defense have ceased to be able to exercise this power of the Absolute, and their positioning & system plays are more important in disallowing the opposition’s ability of life; there are less likely to crosscheck in front of the net instead the rearguard must position themselves in the power relation to remove the conditions of a scoring play from developing at all.
The defense, or resistance, of a hockey team are spread across the players and strategies that place this defensive responsibility on one player are often believed to fail before they are attempted. Or as Foucault would have said “these points of resistance are present everywhere in the power network. Hence there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellion, or pure law of the revolutionary” (Ibid. P. 95-96). Some players might disagree that they are not the ‘single locus of the great Refusal’ and there as been some evidence of this ‘pure law’ of goaltending, especially when we watched Halak’s playoff run last spring. Even the ugly jerseys of Canada’s West Coast have admitted that the Great Bobby Lou cannot be the soul of their defensive structure: as Mike Gillis actions—stripping the goalie of the captainship and acquiring Ballard & Hamhuis—have shown. This position of Foucault’s, on resistance, has become so ingrained in our culture and society that it is beginning to show up in the everyday knowledge of hockey: this is why even the most ardent anti-MacT fan is happy to be rid of the Ol’Timey Coach and to have him replaced by Renney know for his systems play and giving each player a specific role. We all know that the Oilers cannot rely on a single source of rebellion & defense, not because we don’t have an elite player in a defensive position (and we clearly don’t), but because that is not how resistance to the opposition actually works.
This leaves us with one question about the Oilers’ defensive play this year: (and I will leave it in Foucault’s words) the “present struggles revolve around the question: Who are we? They are a refusal of these abstractions, of economic and state violence, which ignores who we are individually, and also a refusal of a scientific or administrative inquisition that determines who one is” (“The Subject and Power.” Power: Essential Works of Foucault. Vol. 3. P. 331). As Foucault claimed earlier in this essay, his questions where not about the function of power—the strategy of hockey—but instead about the subject—the team (Ibid. P. 327). The key to Renney’s defensive plans neither lie in the abstractions of the ‘X’s and ‘O’s on his white board which could ignore who the players are as individuals, nor do they lie in the statistical or scientific inquisitions that could determine what an individual player’s role should be. What matters is who this team is. No perfect systems play will make a rookie back check like St. Fernando. We do not know who these young Oilers are yet, but this season will go a long way to teaching us about them. More importantly then the systems play (the administration of biopolitics) is how the Oilers express themselves as the subject that we all hope they will be.