The Elephant, the Box, and the Man

Writer: Chris Babic
Reporter/contributor: Megan Matsuda

An issue of The Evening Telegram dated from September 21, 1931 was uncovered from the time capsule.
Photograph by
Megan Matsuda for Ryerson Folio.

[W]hat does a maverick professional hockey owner of what has become one of the NHL’s most storied franchises place in a nondescript box he’s not sure when, if ever, will be opened?

Last Thursday, January 26th, the contents of the now famous Maple Leaf Gardens time capsule were revealed to the public, after much speculation and mystery. While not as intriguing as some observers had hoped, the items offer insight into Toronto in the early 1930’s, the original architect’s thoughts on the building, and harbour a few mysteries of their own.

The first of the mysteries concerns the box itself, as on the inner side of the lid are engraved the words “M.B. Campbell, September 21st, 1931. 124 Lindsay Ave.” The significance of Campbell is largely unknown and open to wide speculation.

There is also a question of the elephant in the box; that is the small ivory elephant which as yet, nobody can explain why it was placed in the capsule.

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Contents of the 1931 Maple Leaf Gardens time capsule.

According to Smythe’s son Hugh Smythe, 84, the elephant figurine was likely a gift from his father’s friend, someone he met in a WWI prison camp. Christie Smythe, Conn’s great-granddaughter, recalls that Conn’s wife, Irene, had a collection of elephants, and believes that the capsule elephant could have been part of that collection.

Jane Marshall, Vice President of Loblaw Companies Limited, offered her own opinion into the hat.

“The ivory elephant is so mysterious. I heard that there was also a blue ribbon on it, and it may be a good luck charm. Nobody really knows the truth behind it.”

Ryerson University President Sheldon Levy is more interested in the financial documents.

“[The stock prospectus] doesn’t exist anywhere else,” President Levy says, “the question is why it was put in there. The ‘why’ makes it really interesting.”

Left, Jane Marshall, Vice President of Loblaw
Companies Limited, and right, Ryerson University
President Sheldon Levy. Photo by Megan Matsuda.

[T]he capsule was found several months ago tucked-in behind the cornerstone at the Maple Leaf Gardens. Ryerson University history professor Arne Kislenko told the assembled media that the capsule was placed there on September 21st, 1931, by Conn Smythe, who essentially created the Maple Leafs and whom owned the team until 1961.

Smythe bought the team – then named the Toronto St. Patrick’s – in 1927, changing the name to the Maple Leafs, and the team colours to their now iconic blue and white (the colours of his gravel and sand company at the time).

Revealed in the capsule are documents showing Smythe’s own fear about the future of professional hockey in Toronto, especially because the Leafs had outgrown their old home, and Smythe wanted to build an arena in the midst of the Great Depression. After a savvy land deal with T. Eaton Co., in just five months, Smythe finally had his hockey palace.

At the height of the Great Depression, the Gardens stood out as an icon of the popularity of sports and entertainment: a beacon of happiness and prosperity within the poverty stricken residential slums of Toronto. It was nicknamed the “Carlton Street Cashbox,” for the fact that most Maple Leafs hockey games were sold out, especially after the economy began to recover.

Eighty years later, and the last of the Gardens’ mysteries was dug up by workers during renovations to turn the storied arena into a flagship Loblaws supermarket and Ryerson’s Peter Gilgan Athletic Centre, where all the time capsule items will be on permanent display upon the centre’s opening.

Ultimately, the significance of the capsule items will fade, but the lasting legacy for Ryerson athletics will be in the rich history of the building itself. All but two of the Leafs Stanley Cup banners were raised in the Gardens, and Ryerson athletes know they are playing on hallowed land, at least where hockey is concerned.

“At first, playing there will feel important, since it is such an historic building. Then after the first few games are over, it is just hockey. The reputation of the Gardens creates opportunity for other people to support our athletes,” said Andrew Buck, the captain of the Rams men’s hockey team.

“Ryerson athletics is growing. This puts a stamp on our growth and helps bring everyone together in spirit for Ryerson,” added Rams women’s hockey player, Emily Rose Galliana Pecchia.

They believe the history of the building speaks for itself in the legacy of sportsmanship and hard-work Ryerson students hope to carry on.

A new time capsule will soon be placed inside the Peter Gilgan Athletic Centre before its completion. It is hoped that the historical contents of the 1931 capsule inspires Torontonians and Ryerson students to question what items should represent our time.

What would you put in the time capsule? You can make suggestions by tweeting @RyersonNews or visiting Ryerson’s Facebook page.