While workers furiously rushed to complete Maple Leaf Gardens in time for the home opener on November 12, 1931, several hundred gathered on Carlton Street near Church as the building’s cornerstone was placed at 2:30 on the afternoon of September 21, 1931.
It was a command performance for executives of the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club, which operated out of offices at 11 King Street West in Toronto while they awaited the completion of the new arena. J.P. Bickell, the team’s president, presided over the ceremony. He was joined at the site by vice presidents Ed Bickle and Harry MacGee, Managing Director Conn Smythe, board members J. Earl Birks, Alfred Rogers and Victor Ross, and investor John A. Tory, the grandfather of the current mayor of Toronto.
On that momentous, sunny Toronto day, team president J.P. Bickell stepped to the microphone and made the introductory remarks, addressed to Ontario’s Lieutenant- Governor, W. D. Ross.
“This building, with which I trust your name will long be associated, perhaps might be regarded as a civic institution rather than a commercial venture because its object is to foster and promote the healthy recreation of the people of the British and sports-loving city. It represents the combined efforts of all sections of the community. Capital for its erection has come very largely from those who are actuated by a spirit of civic patriotism, rather than a desire to reap financial benefit. No less a high ideal has inspired those whose labour is creating it, for I am glad to tell Your Honour that the members of various trades employed are becoming part-owners of the enterprise by accepting a substantial portion of their remuneration in stock. There is, I believe, no precedent in any similar project for this happy situation.
The first benefits from this work have already been experienced through the distribution of a very considerable amount in wages, the purchase in Canada, of large quantities, materials and supplies and the profitable employment of some 800 men. Upon completion, the land and building will represent an expenditure in excess of $1,500,000, and will accommodate approximately 13,000 for hockey games and 17,000 for concerts, wrestling, boxing or other sports not requiring the entire rink area.
I am happy again to say to your Honour that your being here today is the best augury of the useful future for this building that it well can have, and I now present to you a trowel which, after it has served its purpose, I would ask you to accept as a memento of this occasion.”
The Lieutenant-Governor responded in kind. “I am glad that the idea of building a new sports arena in Toronto was initiated during my term of office as Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, and that it is my official duty, as well as my keen personal pleasure, to lay the cornerstone,” he began. “Toronto is, and has been for years, a sports centre. Our position on Lake Ontario; our national exhibition, our general enthusiasm for sports of all kinds, amateur and professional, make this city the logical location for a building worthy of our record, of our need and f our ambition.
“I cannot sufficiently stress the importance of athletic sports. They make for good health. They make for self-discipline and self-mastery. Man is not separable into physical, intellectual and spiritual parts. Each contributes to the whole. The work of an arena, a university and a church are different, but all are necessary. In the hope and expectation that Maple Leaf Gardens will play well its part in the development of good and clean athletic sports, I hereby declare its cornerstone to be well and truly laid.”
A dedication prayer was then delivered by Reverend Dr. John Inkster. “Grant, O Lord, that (Maple Leaf Gardens) may contribute to wholesome entertainment, healthful recreation and good fellowship. Keep everything connected with this arena clean, pure and honest.”
The contents in the cornerstone served as a time capsule of the era. There were four newspapers (Evening Telegraph, Globe, Mail and Empire and Toronto Daily Star) from September 21, 1931, a Toronto Municipal handbook, a stock prospectus from Maple Leaf Gardens, a Red Ensign flag, three hockey rule books, a four-page letter from the directors of Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. that provided details about the construction and financing of the new arena and, curiously, a small ivory elephant that, to this day, defies explanation as to its inclusion.
All of these items were contained in a copper box that remained untouched for eighty years within a block that read ‘1931 AD’ to passersby on Carlton Street. The box had been created by Millard Campbell, a draftsman for an engineering firm, who had carved his name and address into the inner lid of the box. The Campbell and Smythe familes were acquainted, and Millard did work for Maple Leaf Gardens.
The contents of the original cornerstone are displayed within the former Maple Leafs Gardens, in the lobby overseeing the ice surface now being used by Ryerson University.