B ball star calls the shots at the Gold Rush

Dikran Zabunyan is known as Mr. Z. But not in Whitehorse. Not yet anyway. “It’s not appropriate in this town,” said the newly…

Dikran Zabunyan is known as Mr. Z.

But not in Whitehorse.

Not yet anyway.

“It’s not appropriate in this town,” said the newly minted Gold Rush Inn manager.

“In Ontario I was known as Mr. Z. Here I’m not known at all. I’m and Outsider. Therefore, I’m not going to enforce that.”

There are many things Yukoners don’t know about the tanned, mustachioed character who settled into former owner Doug Thomas’s office in June.

And it doesn’t just involve hotel management.

For starters, the man was a basketball sensation.

He has dominated the hardwood since moving from Turkey to Toronto at the age of 12.

He performed athletic feats all the way through high school and college, and then moved on to play professional ball in Europe.

He also ran a semi-pro basketball team for nine years. It was considered second best in the country after the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.

And, he managed to do all this while running major hotels, building casinos and turning around a $20-million golf club resort.

“I bring everything I’ve done in sports to the real world,” said the 47-year-old.

“As an athlete, I was asked by my coach to be the coach on the floor,” he said.

“I was taught to always be vocal. Always understand the needs of the team.

“I take charge. If there’s need to take charge, I take charge.”

Late last year, before Northern Vision Development bought the Gold Rush from Thomas, they did a nation-wide search for a new general manager.

They found Zabunyan, who was at the time running the Cranberry Golf Resort, Spa and Conference Centre in Collingwood, Ontario.

The guy they lured into the job not only had the credentials, he also had a long history of team leadership.

It all began in the early ‘70s, when a young Zabunyan, new to Canada, met another Turkish boy at school named Herman Altun.

The pair would pop in to a local Armenian church that had a gym.

It was at this gym where a former player of the Moscow Red Army basketball team, Armenak Alajajian, decided to teach the youngsters how to play hoops.

“He had moved from Russia,” said Zabunyan. “He played against Wilt Chamberlain in the (1964) Tokyo Olympics.”

The boys were to become two of the best high school basketball players in the city.

“We were known as the Armenian connection,” he said.

“I could find him anywhere on the court. I could pass the ball to him between my legs and behind my back without even looking.”

“Him and Altun just terrorized Toronto with their one-two punch,” said Dana McKiel, the author of Hang Time, a book about high school basketball in Toronto over the last 25 years.

“Dik was a good guard; a very flashy guard. He played with a lot of intensity — much like if you talk to him now, he talks with a lot of intensity.”

Zabunyan came to be known as Pistol Z, because he looked and played like NBA star Pistol Pete Maravich, who at the time was playing with the New Orleans Jazz.

“I fashioned my game after this guy,” he said.

“I used to have long side burns and a goatee, and I wore PRO-Keds (basketball shoes) with my socks pulled up high.

“I played the same way, a little bit of hot-dogging.”

Zabunyan was selected as a city all-star for his two senior years at Earl Haig Secondary School, and in 1976 the team won the North York city championships.

It was in his last year of high school that Zabunyan got into the hotel industry.

“My father came to me when I was at the age of 17 and told me it was about time I found a job, because I wasn’t going to go anywhere playing basketball,” he said.

His pops knew the manager of Toronto’s Sheraton Centre, and it was there that Zabunyan got his first job as a valet.

“I was working full time, I was going to school full time, I was playing basketball full time,” he said.

By the time he graduated from high school, Zabunyan was the night manager at the hotel.

He decided to stay at home, and declined basketball scholarships to US colleges.

He dominated college hoops for three years at Centennial College in Toronto, racking up 1686 points in 98 games.

“We were a powerhouse,” he said.

After college, he played professional basketball for Fenerbahce SK, a team in his homeland Turkey.

“I signed a three-year deal with a team I used to dream about playing for,” he said.

At a relatively short 5’11, he was dwarfed by the seven-foot monsters he played with.

“What I lacked in height, I made up with my quickness and my ability to see the open man and shoot the ball behind the arc,” he said.

Returning to Canada, he ran several major Toronto hotels and was then hired to run the Windsor Casino, opening three new casinos in five years.

While his playing days were over, Zabunyan’s ties to basketball didn’t end there.

He formed a semi-pro basketball team called the Rose City Express, which began playing NCAA Division 1 college teams, something unheard of before for Canadian teams.

In 1997, they won the famous St. Cecilias Detroit Summer Pro League, which had teams stacked with NBA players keeping warm in the off-season.

“We beat a team in the finals that had Maurice Taylor, Jalen Rose, Vashon Leonard, Tractor Traylor — all the big boys,” said Zabunyan.

Relocating to Toronto and being renamed the GT Express, they were acknowledged as the second best team in Canada behind only the Toronto Raptors.

The team folded in 2004 and it was at this moment Zabunyan was handpicked to run the $20-million, 280-hectare Cranberry golf resort in Collingwood.

By the time he left Collingwood, everyone in town knew Zabunyan as Mr. Z, said Munir Chaudhary, who eventually took over from him as Cranberry’s general manager.

“He’s a people’s person,” said Chaudhary. “Once he gets into a community everybody likes him.”

When Zabunyan got a call from Northern Vision for the Gold Rush Job, he found his new direction.

He especially appreciated the company’s chair, Piers McDonald.

“It’s a pleasure to work for a gentleman like that because he empowers you to do things.

“That’s how people shine.”

Since arriving in Whitehorse, Zabunyan has done his best to shine.

“It’s not easy for an Outsider to come in here and make an impact, unless you have the right approach and personality to do it.

“Usually the personality of the business, whether it’s a basketball team or hotel, takes the personality of the general manager, of the coach.

“I’m very visible. I manage by walking around. Image and decorum is very important to me.”

He plans to turn the hotel into a competitor with the Westmark Hotel and the High Country Inn.

“This place will turn around in five months. It’s already turning around,” he said.

The major changes will probably start happening after Labour Day, he said.

They plan on putting internet in all the rooms, and by the New Year should have a new business centre and an exorcise room.

“We’re going to be buying top-of-the-line audiovisual equipment for our conference centre to generate more high end, up-scale conferences,” he said.

His team will also be adding on something special, but he declined to let the cat out of the bag just yet.

“Let’s just say we’re going to be enhancing our food and beverage operations in the New Year.”

The long-term plan is to completely rebuild a new upscale hotel in place of the old one. They may even add another hotel elsewhere in the city.

This should start happening in two years, he said.

Right now, he’s focused on promotion and networking, so business starts to pick up. His new cellphone number has R-U-S-H as the last four digits.

“It’s all PR. People call me for business. That’s how I do it. Reputation is everything,” he said, and then after a slight pause, added, “And the ability to deliver.”

And so far he’s delivered. Three weeks ago, the Gold Rush won the Best Western Director’s Award for being in the top five per cent of all 4,000 Best Westerns worldwide.

“That’s quite an important achievement,” he said, refusing to take all the credit.

“It’s the staff,” he said. “The staff makes you or breaks you.”

And what about the basketball?

“I’ve shot some hoop at the Games Centre but I can’t move,” he said.

“My left knee is shot, my back is shot. Right now I can hardly dribble the ball. At my level if you can’t do it right, there’s no need.”

Nevertheless, he has promised the coach of the Yukon territorial high school basketball team he’d help with sponsorship.

And, of course, he’ll continue to use his athletic experience on the job.

“I was fortunate enough to be the point guard. The point guard is the manager. You’re managing your team,” he said.

And like in high school, he has high expectations.

“I promised him. I promised Doug Thomas. On behalf of both of us, we will make this hotel the best in this town.”

If this happens, maybe he’ll once again be known as Mr. Z.

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