The McGill Library has 13 branches. The office of Earl Zukerman, BA’80, could qualify as the 14th.
McGill’s long-time sports information officer sits among decades of clippings, photos, bookcases packed with sports titles, and other memorabilia, which fill both his office and part of a colleague’s, with 12 three-drawer filing cabinets spilling out into the hallway.
“There are always things that I need to find or history that I need to dig up,” he says in his defence.
When three-time Olympic gold medalist Kim St-Pierre, BEd’04, remembers the support Zukerman gave to the Martlets hockey team she played for at McGill, she recalls just as vividly the cluttered environment from where those press releases and media pitches emanated. “I remember his office was always messy, but he always knew where everything was.”
The organized chaos of his sports archives is twinned with encyclopedias housed inside Zukerman’s mind. Off the top of his head, he can tell you the number of McGill athletes who have made it to the NFL (3), the NHL (9) and the CFL (62), the year McGill won the Vanier Cup national football championship (1987), when McGill alumnus James Naismith invented basketball (1891), and what teams played in, and the year of, the first-ever North American college football game (McGill and Harvard in 1874).
His wide-ranging knowledge of sports comes from years of fandom. As a kid, he played Strat-O-Matic Baseball and pored over the newspaper boxscores. He regularly called in to a sports radio show hosted by the late Ted Tevan. The colourful broadcaster could be cantankerous, but he took a shine to Zukerman, nicknaming him “Earl the Pearl,” a moniker still widely used today.
Zukerman has attended hundreds, if not thousands, of pro and varsity men’s and women’s games. Ask him what led to the Expos’ departure from Montreal and he will fit all the pieces into place, including the CBC favouring Blue Jays games over Expos matches, weak and ineffective ownership after Charles Bronfman left the scene, dwindling corporate sponsorships, Gary Carter’s million-dollar ask, and a sell-off of fan-favourite players.
Sports journalists are among Zukerman’s biggest fans. “He understands our business—the job, the deadlines—better than any other sports person I’ve dealt with,” says Stu Cowan, a columnist with the Montreal Gazette and the paper’s former sports editor.
Cowan says Zukerman always has a human-interest story about a McGill athlete at the ready. “Whether it’s a player who had been cut by his junior team, or was one of 10 [children] in his family, he always knows the backstory of these kids who are playing.”
Zukerman recently hit the 30-year mark as a full-time staffer at McGill Athletics, a milestone that prompted a swarm of congratulatory tweets and messages. “[McGill] is lucky to have the tireless Pearl, a template for any sports information director at any university,” tweeted NHL.com columnist Dave Stubbs.
As impressive as a 30-year run might sound, Zukerman has been working at McGill for even longer than that. His association with McGill Athletics and Recreation dates back to his student days, 45 unbroken years ago.
His psychology and sociology classes would make way for varsity-game reporting at the McGill Daily, where he served as a reporter and sports editor. In 1979, Ken Tyler, then coach of the McGill hockey team, hired Zukerman as a statistician for the club. The shots on net and faceoff wins that Zukerman tallied helped Tyler assess his players. “There were things I could not see from the bench that I could get from the stats,” says Tyler, who would go on to coach Austria’s 1994 Olympic men’s hockey team.
Tyler remembers Zukerman’s importance to the McGill team and the coloured pens he’d use to differentiate stats. “He was absolutely loved by the team,” who gave Zukerman a hat festooned with coloured pens and feathers.
Zukerman continued as statistician and took on more McGill sports communications work, while waitering, and studying journalism, advertising and public relations, and then sports administration. By 1987, the same year the football team won the Vanier Cup, Zukerman was publicizing McGill’s name further afield and steadily building up the network of reporters who knew they could count on him.
One career highlight involves legendary NHL coach Mike Babcock, BEd’86, a former McGill hockey player, who was celebrating the Detroit Red Wings’ Stanley Cup win in 2008. Babcock flew his old friend to his hometown, Saskatoon, to be part of the festivities.
Zukerman was given the first sip of beer from hockey’s most fabled trophy at a private party held on a local farm. “I’m not a big beer fan but that was the best tasting beer ever. It was ice cold and the moment was golden.”
Pat Sheahan, BEd’90, the assistant head football coach at the University of Calgary (he held the same position at this university the year McGill won the Vanier Cup), remembers Zukerman as a guy who would startle security guards when he emerged from his office at 4:30 am.
“He’s gone way beyond what’s expected of an employee in terms of hours [and] effort, and he’s one of those guys who really cares about the institution and the students.”
While Zukerman typically operates behind the scenes, he has hosted seven years of sports talk radio for different Montreal stations. He recently put that experience to work in his day job, launching the podcast Alma Matters.
The podcast features interviews with some of the remarkable sports figures Zukerman has encountered at McGill over the years, including St-Pierre (the accomplished goalie was recently selected for the Hockey Hall of Fame), Shaunna Burke, BA’01 (the second Canadian woman to successfully summit Mt. Everest), and former Montreal Canadiens forward Mathieu Darche, BCom’00 (who earned a Stanley Cup ring for his work as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s director of hockey operations).
At 63, Zukerman still loves his job and has no immediate plans to retire. “I enjoy that connection I make with athletes, coaches and alumni,” he says, referring to the calls he gets from a former athlete looking for an old team photo or an alumna who wants to donate a hockey jersey from her grandfather.
That mass of memorabilia you see when you walk into his office seems to be a physical manifestation of all those connections and his rich history with the University. Just be careful to not bump into a bookcase. A prized soccer ball or Expos bobblehead could land on your head.