The NHL is the top hockey league in the world, and if we are looking at this from a sports production standpoint this means we are describing the most highly skilled manufacture of competition and uncertain hockey outcomes on the planet, as an ongoing concern — which is to say as a matter of accumulation rather than the elite event-based production of the Olympics.
But of course the game is also about the production of spectacle, of audience aggregation and synthetic storylines and target marketing — and thus the most highly skilled manufacture of sporting gesture and its transmission, of affective receptivity, of qualified fanaticism and quantified consumerism.
For most of the 20th century, as John Bale points out, the former has meant an increasingly hygienic space of sporting production, in which the values of achievement sport most desired by accumulation find their way into the daily churn of the professional sport industry. In a sense, it was not simply a standardization that mattered but the removal of noise which could otherwise contaminate the truth of the results.
And for most of the 20th century spectacle played along, developing an increasingly elaborate logistics of perception to disguise production altogether and present the viscera of pure, competitive play-at-work. The surgicality of the endeavour is even more pronounced here, with thousands of sensory cuts rendered and stitched together to somehow produce the skin of a sporting Gesamtkunstwerk.
Which is what makes the NHL's Winter Classic so interesting: by playing the game outdoors and subject to the elements (snow, wind, glare), not only is a particular sporting nostalgia of backyard shinny and pond hockey revived, but spectacle itself becomes more spectacular by explicitly refusing the hygienic paradigm of modern sport. Noise is introduced, friction enters the system, and by the standards of achievement sport the event's game production occurs at a shockingly substandard level.
There is a refusal of hygiene in the play-at-work space, but only by cutting through the spatiotemporal fold and admitting the past. A futural noise, friction or filth would still be unimaginable here.
If there is in fact a zone in which the past-present of the Winter Classic meets the future, it remains bound with that other element of achievement sport — the record. Only the record of interest here is one of accumulation: the largest crowd in hockey history ever to witness a live contest, as 105,491 jammed into the University of Michigan football stadium to watch the game.
And hence the flaw in Bale's analysis: for him, pace Baudrillard and Virilio, it was the television audience that was always right and so to perfectly satisfy the hygienic requirements of achievement sport the spectators at the live event had to be removed, leaving behind only an inert ludic container in which the game could be played, fair play assesed, and television imagery produced. But it appears that accumulation is never so teleological, the crowd is precisely necessary to give the alibi to spectacle, and it is hygienic achievement which can be removed from the equation and left behind without losing a truth verdict in the process.
In this case, witness-noise makes a virtue of production-noise to set a nostalgic record, though one wonders what the hyperbolic curve will demand as it increasingly detaches from its counterpart in linear accumulation.