ORONO, Maine — University of Maine graduate student Heidi Choate had no idea it was coming.
Just after the first period of Friday night’s hockey matchup between the Black Bears and the Boston University Terriers, she and Chris Austin, her boyfriend of nearly 1½ years, were led out to the Alfond Arena’s center ice by announcer Joe Kennedy.
After a few words about what brought them there, Austin turned to Choate and said, “I can’t even tell you because I don’t know how to say it.”
He then dropped down on one knee and presented her with an engagement ring featuring the Tiffany diamond passed down by his late grandmother, drawing “oohs” and wild cheers from the crowd.
Because Choate’s response couldn’t be heard in the din, Kennedy provided the good news. “It’s a yes! Good luck in the second quarter of your life,” he said as the couple left the ice.
Friday’s marriage proposal, witnessed by nearly 5,000 screaming hockey fans, is believed to be the first of its kind in the Alfond’s more than 30-year history.
Austin said the plot was hatched with the help of a friend, Justin Barnes, general manager of Black Bear Sports Properties at UMaine, who was looking for an event to generate some buzz.
To keep the proposal a surprise, Austin said, he concocted a ruse that involved a promotional package he won that included, among other things, dinner for two, hockey tickets, a bouquet and the use of a limousine. It also helped cover the cost of a new setting for his grandmother’s diamond.
“It’s gonna be crazy,” he said during a telephone interview about five hours before he popped the question. He said about 75 people, namely family members and mutual friends, were going to be at the game so they could be on hand for the big moment.
“We kind of coordinated the seating, so we hope she doesn’t see anyone” who might pique her curiosity by being there, he said. “So far, we’ve been able to pull it off.”
Though the proposal was a surprise to Choate, it had been in the planning stages for about two months, Austin said Friday. He said he’d sought and received Choate’s parents’ blessing and had the ring readied a few weeks ago at Quality Jewelers.
He said he was honored to be able to present the ring — worn by his late grandmother, Eleanor McPhee, and passed down to his mother, Tara Austin — to the love of his life.
Austin, 27, is a native of Houlton who earned his degree in business administration from UMaine in 2006. He manages the Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar on Hogan Road in Bangor.
Choate, 23, is from the Augusta-Turner area and is slated to receive her master’s degree in speech pathology this spring.
Austin said he and Choate met through Choate’s sister and one of Austin’s friends. Compared to the wedding proposal, the couple’s first date was pretty traditional.
“We went out to dinner at Margarita’s and watched a movie,” he said.
The two clicked and have been an item ever since. They live in Bangor with their 2½-year-old golden retriever, Baxter, named after the state park.
Friday afternoon, Austin said he was over his nervousness for the most part, though he’d had only a few hours of sleep for the last two nights.
“I’d better not fall on the ice,” he said.
As it turned out, he did just fine.