This temptress of swimsuits and posters is gliding sleekly around the aisles at Madison Square Garden, a few minutes late by design, blissfully aware of the stares and salutations—"How ya' doin', Carol?"; "Lookin' good, sweetheart,"—while her big Saskatchewan lug of a husband starts inelegantly up ice. She greets the ushers by name as she passes, flashing each a dazzling smile, searching out some unseen destination at a gracefully determined pace. Carol Alt needs a seat.
One of the few things in New York that money, contacts and fame cannot buy is a Rangers season ticket at center ice, loge level, among the plush corporately owned red-cushioned seats. Alt has tried. Her husband, Ron Greschner, the captain of the team, has tried. So at each game one of the most recognizable faces in the Big Apple scours the Garden for a vacant "red" after the opening faceoff, occasionally finding one and then being unceremoniously booted out by a tardy ticket-holder.
"Two right here that aren't going to be used," an usher tells her, and she thanks him, shaking her luxuriant dark hair as she sits, waving to yet another admirer two rows back, seemingly unaware of the game. Meanwhile, Greschner, the puck-scarred, corseted veteran, has just completed his glacial progress into enemy territory, pulling up at the blue line and threading a pass to an open winger, who feeds a Ranger in the slot, who finishes the ticktacktoe play with a shot. And a goal. With a roar, the fans rise as one. It is impossible that she has seen it, you are thinking, but this blue-eyed, fresh-faced fantasy cuts her sentence short and is suddenly on her feet, right fist in the air, transformed into one of the most beastly creatures in all of sport—a Rangers fan. She is screaming. In a moment Alt composes herself and sits down, her dewy complexion slightly flushed. "Excuse me," she says.
The crowd settles to a buzz, the play resumes, the game now tied 2-2, and the public-address announcer gives the account of the goal. The second assist goes to Greschner.
February 9, 1987
"I thought so," Alt says with an absolutely genuine smile, no dazzle at all this time, pure sunshine. A smile that wrinkles her nose.
It is obvious. She adores him. Alt actually remembers the day they first met: March 6, 1982. She was on a roll at the time. A month earlier she had been on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S annual swimsuit issue, which, in turn, had led to her first appearance on Good Morning America. As a model she was known more for her face than for her figure, for her complexion and her azure eyes, features that were beginning to appear on magazine covers with regularity (she estimates she has been on more than 500 covers in eight years of modeling). Alt was 21, a small-town Long Island girl whose feet were on the ground even as her career was soaring.
Things were not quite so rosy for Greschner in March '82. He was 27 and had just spent SXA weeks in traction for a back ailment that had kept him out of the Rangers' lineup since November. His future as a hockey player was in doubt. Doctors were recommending surgery to remove two damaged disks, an injury suffered when he crashed into the boards in Toronto while throwing an errant hip check. The surgery might well have ended Greschner's playing career. And while it was not a career that would one day put him into the Hall of Fame—he has been selected to but one NHL All-Star squad in his 13 years with the Rangers—it was a career worth salvaging. In 1982 Greschner was already the highest-scoring Ranger defenseman of all time, and while today he stands seventh on the club's career scoring list with 174 goals and 397 assists in 791 games, he will almost certainly move up to fifth before the season is through.
Alt was having a drink—if that's what you call a cup of hot water and lemon—at Oren & Aretsky's, a trendy watering hole on Manhattan's Third Avenue, when Ken Aretsky, one of the co-owners, pointed out Greschner. The big defenseman had given Rangers tickets to Aretsky several times in the past few months. Aretsky had, in turn, passed some of them on to Alt. "That's the guy whose tickets you've been using," Aretsky said.
Alt wanted to thank Greschner. That really is all she wanted to do. She is the type of person who sends thank-you notes for favors—a thoughtful, organized person. She was going out with actor and rock singer Rex Smith at the time, and their relationship was stormy enough without some gossip columnist writing about the SI cover girl being seen with the injured jock. So she asked Aretsky to invite Greschner over for a drink on the condition that Aretsky sit with them. Greschner, who was having a beer and talking to a couple of girls at the time, said he would be by in a minute.
Time passed. But Greschner didn't budge. Alt grew irritated. It is a well-known fact that the way to a beautiful woman's heart is to ignore her, but the truth was Greschner wasn't really interested in gaining access to Alt's heart. He didn't like models. He had met several in his years with the Rangers—the Blueshirts had quite a reputation in the late 1970s—and they had mostly been on the wild side of pretty. "My career was going bad enough without getting involved in all that," Greschner says now.
Alt, though, wasn't much of a party-er. But she was something of a health nut, in fact, a nondairy vegetarian whose chief vice was an occasional cup of scotch coffee. And she liked to get her rest. So at 10:30, after waiting nearly an hour, she walked over and confronted Greschner directly. "I offered you a drink," Alt said. "At least have the courtesy to tell me you don't want it so I can go home."
Greschner apologized. He came over to her table and, still skeptical, sat down. He asked what she was drinking. "Hot water and lemon," Alt replied.
Greschner understood that models could be kind of flaky, but this was a new one to him. "Hot water and lemon?"
"It's very refreshing."
Greschner took her word for it and ordered a beer. Then, by way of making small talk, he said, "You don't drink?"
"Do you smoke?" Greschner asked.
"Do you do drugs?"
He took a sip of his beer. "What do you do to get high?"
Alt, in recounting the story, pauses here to smile, for you cannot deliver this next line with a straight face. "I told him, 'I get high on life,' " she recalls. "And he said, 'That's nice. That really is.' "
Any relationship that can survive that opening scene must be magic. Greschner, for his part, remembers, "I sort of fell in love with her in the first 10 minutes."
"She was just coming out of a relationship with Rex Smith," a friend explains. "He was making a movie in England at the time. Suddenly here's Ron, who's big and affectionate—everything that Rex wasn't—with a certain amount of charisma of his own. He was just what Carol needed."
Both had small-town roots and values, though Greschner's were considerably smaller-town than Alt's, who grew up in East Williston, Long Island, the daughter of a career military man. Greschner hailed from Goodsoil, Saskatchewan (pop: 225), where his father, John, owned a hotel, a car dealership and a construction business. Goodsoil is as close to nowhere as you can get and still get back. It is about 230 miles northwest of Saskatoon and 230 miles northeast of Edmonton, and the closest town, Dorintosh, is 25 miles due east by canoe. Land around there is so flat you can "roll a bowling ball 400 miles," says Greschner.
Rangers general manager Phil Esposito visited Greschner in Goodsoil in 1980, when they were still playing teammates. "I went over the town line, and about ten seconds later I saw a sign reading THANK YOU, COME AGAIN," Esposito recalls. "I said to Ronnie, 'How the hell did you ever get out of here?' "
By playing hockey. Even the smallest towns in Canada have organized teams, and Greschner was lucky enough to have reached his full height—he is 6'2", and now weighs 215 pounds—by his early teens. Coaches noticed him, particularly because there were only seven bantam-aged kids playing for Goodsoil and Greschner was seldom off the ice.
He was drafted by the New Westminster (British Columbia) Bruins junior team, and at 15 he began playing Tier II hockey 1,200 miles from home. Big and rangy, smart with the puck, Greschner became a second-round draft pick of the Rangers in 1974, the 32nd overall.
He played only seven games in the minors before he moved up to the Blueshirts to stay, at 19. Says Dave Maloney, who turned pro with the Rangers at the same time Greschner did and is now a Wall Street stockbroker, "In all his years in New York, Ronnie has never really changed. Sometimes he's a little in awe of the whole thing, but he keeps his own personality. The amazing part to me is that Carol went up to Goodsoil early in their courtship and actually liked the place."
It's true. The big-bucks, high-fashion model from New York felt right at home among the mosquitoes and walleye and farmers. "I love Canadians," she says. "They are the best. They're farm boys, most of them. Very family-oriented. Ronnie's mother told me before we were married that you could tell the way a man would treat his wife by the way he treated his mother. Ronnie was always respectful and gentlemanly. And the entire time he was courting me he was hurting. He was virtually paralyzed the first two years, but he'd still hobble around to open the car door for me."
Greschner's back continued to keep him on the sidelines for all but 10 games in the '82-83 season. He tried traction, chiropractors, acupuncture, the Mayo Clinic, papaya enzyme injections—you name it—but nothing helped. He moved into Alt's apartment in July '82, and before going to work in the morning she would fix him a breakfast and lunch, pile a bunch of magazines beside his bed, hand him the remote control for the television and bid him good day. He was usually lying in the same spot when she got back from her modeling session.
There were days when he couldn't lift his legs to get out of bed, and other days, when he felt really swell, that he could actually make the big trek to the elevator and maybe shuffle down to the corner and back. "It's a bad memory, and I've blocked a lot of stuff out. But Carol more or less talked me into believing I could still play."
Finally, on Alt's advice, Greschner tried a therapy called "reflexology," a sort of manual acupuncture primarily geared toward massaging the nerve endings in the feet and hands. "The first time I did it to him," she recalls, "I had him screaming, just by rubbing his feet. He almost fainted. And I wasn't strong enough to really do it right."
Greschner began seeing a reflexology therapist, and the back slowly mended. "I don't even know what happened medically," he says now. "I haven't had a back X-ray since 1983. All I know is that I've been hit hard, and I can lift rocks on our farm in upstate New York, and it doesn't bother me. Knock wood."
Greschner continues to wear a fiberglass corset support, but makes no other concessions to his back. In fact, in the season he returned to the lineup, 1983-84, he fought more than he had at any time in his career, chalking up 117 penalty minutes in 77 games.
"He fought just to prove he could still play," says Alt, whom Greschner married in November '83. "He becomes another person on the ice. At home, even when I provoke him he doesn't get mad. He really has a calming effect on me. I work at a job where you have to keep everything in, you're not allowed to get mad or upset, and he works at a job where he lets off steam all the time. At home we switch roles."
Home is a terrace apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, though during the hockey season they spend more time apart than together. "There are weeks at a time when all we do is pass each other in the air," says Alt, who estimates she spends eight months a year on the road. This fall she was in the Dominican Republic for 10 days to shoot the SI swimsuit issue, then flew directly to Italy for a month to film her first motion picture, Via Montenapoleone, which is to be released in Europe next month. Greschner, as he always does, called her daily. They chat about this and that. Occasionally they chat about Alt's wardrobe or lack of same.
Alt promised her father, Anthony, who passed away Christmas Day, 1983, that she would never model in the nude; so when Jule Campbell, SI's swimsuit feature editor, asked Alt to pose in a particularly skimpy outfit this year, Alt surreptitiously checked first with her husband. Greschner gave her the go-ahead. But Alt draws the line at swimsuits that turn peekaboo when wet. "She said she didn't want her picture in a see-through bathing suit hanging in some hockey locker room," recalls Campbell.
Alt also checked with Greschner before doing a love scene—clothed—in Via Montenapoleone. "I don't have to ask him, but I want to," she says. "He does care. He just likes to be warned ahead of time so he's prepared for it."
Alt's best-selling poster in 1985, which showed her sweating sexily in a disheveled cotton teddy, was from a slide Greschner had picked. "I chose the one that I would have bought," he says. "A poster has to be sexy, but it doesn't have to be filthy. She doesn't have to take off her clothes to be successful. Players joke around about how I sit around and count her money, but the truth is her work makes me feel good. The Rangers had a swimsuit calender hanging in our locker room last year. Guys come in and ask her to sign her poster. I suppose if I really thought about her doing a love scene in a movie it might bother me, but it's work. You have to trust somebody, and you might as well trust your wife. I plan on being married to her for a long time, and 10 years down the road I don't want her to tell me, 'You didn't let me act.' She's only 26. We'll give her four years to work on her acting, and when she's 30 maybe we'll start working on a family."
"The greatest gift you can give your partner is to show you're interested in what he or she is doing," says Alt, who kept up her end of the bargain at the beginning of last season when she helped talk Greschner out of retiring. The rookie coach, Ted Sator—one of 10 Ranger coaches Greschner has played for—told Ron that he didn't fit into the Rangers' plans, and that, at best, he would be a part-time player. "I thought about quitting," says Greschner, who is part owner of a water-softening business based in Regina, Saskatchewan, and is financially secure. "But I talked it over with Carol and she convinced me to stick it out another month. She told me, 'You can't let a coach beat you.' Sator is now gone, coaching the Buffalo Sabres, and Greschner is back anchoring the Rangers' defense after spending most of last year at center.
"He might play five more years for us," says Esposito, "because he still wants to. The guys that have brains last longer than the guys that have legs. Ronnie was never a great skater, but he can move with the puck. I just wish he carried it more."
As for Greschner, he has just one wish: to still be playing when the Rangers get around to winning their first Stanley Cup since 1940. "There's nothing else I really want," he says. Somehow that's easy to believe. He has come a long way from Goodsoil. Alt, however, is another matter. Her goals are less lofty than a Stanley Cup. What she wants is a couple of seats, red section, above the glass if they are between the blue lines, or below the glass if they are behind the nets. You can see the headline now: COVER GIRL'S CAREER SHATTERED BY PUCK IN TEETH! If you know where she can find them, go to the Garden some time and keep your eyes open after the face-off. She's pretty easy to spot.