Expansion and technology are the key words for ice hockey in the 1990s. After a decade of progress that transformed chaos into stability in the '80s, the National Hockey League is prepared to forge ahead into uncharted areas.

NHL President John Ziegler's "Vision for the '90s" is geared toward enlarging the league's size by one-third, from 21 teams to 28, before the close of the century.

It would not be out of the question to see a European division in the NHL. More likely would be a championship series matching the Stanley Cup winner against the World champion, or an all-star series pairing North America and Europe.

Continued technological advances virtually guarantee the implementation of some form of instant replay to decide questionable goals. Progress in pay-per-view systems should alleviate the complaints of hockey fans in areas beyond the reach of cable telecasts.

New arenas with skyboxes and premium seating will boost club revenues as well as fan comfort. The historic buildings of the '20s and '30s will become mere memories; some rinks of the '60s and '70s could be razed, as well.

Changes in the game itself are possible, beyond the use of replays. The NHL may follow the lead of the colleges and eliminate fighting and checking from behind. The red line may be on the way out as a restriction on long passes.

"You could compare our movement to the hare and tortoise," said Washington General Manager David Poile, whose suggestion on delayed offsides was probably the most successful innovation of the '80s. "We move at a slow pace, rather than act quickly and make a mistake to the detriment of the game. But the decisions we do make are usually well thought out." The Global Influence

The decision to expand by up to seven teams, after more than a decade of digesting the 1979 merger with the World Hockey Association, certainly was not made in haste. But it may well have been accelerated by the stirrings of such entities as the Global Hockey League, because the NHL well remembers the cost of its battle with the WHA.

The Global League plans two divisions, one in North America and one in Europe. Each team can pay one star an unlimited amount, with the rest of the roster governed by a salary cap. If the NHL is acting unconcerned, it nevertheless figures to be watching, because it could benefit from Global birth pains to move into Europe at a later date.

"The Global League is not even a nuisance at this time," said Edmonton General Manager Glen Sather. "It has to get closer to reality before we're going to give it much thought."

Still, the breakdown of political barriers has made Europe a fruitful area for the NHL. It already has gained a foothold via television and if cheaper, faster airplanes are developed, an interlocking schedule would be a natural step.

"If the Concorde could be made available on a regular basis and became economically reasonable," that would not be that far-fetched, Poile said. "Certainly, our past activities indicate there is the possibility of a horizon wider than North America.

"We've been involved far more than the other major sports in competition with Europeans. We're playing the Soviets regularly, we're sending teams over there to train and we need other revenue areas. Europe is an area to explore, especially since 1992-93 will bring a free market to TV in Europe."

"Anything is possible," said Brian O'Neill, NHL executive vice president. "Part of our concern for the future is the cost of operating a team, so it would have to be worthwhile, weighing whether a team from Paris or Stockholm would be as much an attraction as a team from Dallas.

"You'd almost have to have a separate division in Europe to make it economically feasible. Right now I think interest is directed at some means of matching the best of this continent against the best of the other continent.

"We'd like to do something like the World Cup in soccer, which is the best of any of them. They do it right. Although international involvement certainly will be greater as time goes on, an interlocking schedule would be a major decision."

NHL executives are opposed to opening the Stanley Cup to international challenges, but they like the idea of some kind of a super series involving European teams.

"The Stanley Cup belongs to the NHL, but perhaps the Stanley Cup champion could play a European team for another cup," Sather said. "That might be fun. Put artificial ice in the Skydome in Toronto, charge $100 a ticket and you'd gross $4 million for one game."

"I can see European involvement coming, but I don't know how close at hand it is," said Boston General Manager Harry Sinden. "Some of those countries seem to be open for our game, whether on the ice or on TV. Maybe the Stanley Cup winner could play a European Cup winner, or we could have something like golf, where all nations compete against the U.S. Maybe a rest-of-the-world winner against the Stanley Cup winner. That has possibilities." New American Frontiers

For its upcoming expansion within North America, the NHL board of governors appears divided between a desire to move into markets with established hockey backgrounds and a feeling that it is ready to push into the South and become a truly national sport in the United States. Some of those favoring the latter course still dream of a network television contract and all the dollars that has meant to other professional sports.

Of course, a franchise in the San Francisco Bay area was forced upon the league in order to resolve the situation in Minnesota, the only NHL club to lose money a year ago.

"A lot of people are looking to California, Texas and Florida," Sinden said. "They are three states with good possibilities and there are enough people who have moved south from hockey areas for acceptance to be available. But there are probably others too."

Two of the strongest candidates, Milwaukee and Hamilton, Ontario, may be ruled out by the need for prohibitive compensation to Chicago and Buffalo/Toronto, with the Sabres refusing even to consider the possibility of a team in Hamilton.

Although the initial focus of expansion is the United States, there remains the possibility of another team in Canada, with Ottawa a strong contender despite limited population.

"There is no reason Canadian cities shouldn't apply," O'Neill said. "Quebec and Winnipeg are relatively small and they have been able to field successful franchises. We look at Canada differently from the U.S., where hockey is not that big.

"The difficulty in this new era is the need for so much in additional revenues. If there is not a lot of industry or commerce, you lack the base to support the skyboxes that are becoming so important."

Montreal, Chicago, Boston, Toronto, St. Louis and Buffalo are likely to build new rinks in the '90s in order to increase revenue generated by the skyboxes and premium seats that carry the same perks.

"We're a gate-receipt industry and if we don't draw crowds, we're in trouble," Sinden said. "Look at Minnesota. All of us in the U.S. are in trouble if we don't win. You can open the doors in Canada and people will come even if you lose, but not here.

"Our TV money has gone up, but not substantially. So we have to look to new areas for support and they are premium seating and skyboxes, with access to private clubs. We're just too old in Boston, but even pretty good arenas are outdated without premium seating."

"Our game gained so much from the intimacy of the old buildings," Ziegler said. "But we have to face the reality of the continuing cost of doing business. Where do we get revenue? There is a strong audience for premium entertainment and they'll pay a price."

Instant replays seem certain to take a role in hockey in the '90s. Even the officials are backing their use in resolving disputes over whether a goal has been scored.

"Right now a supervisor in the stands can have a definitive answer, but he can't tell anybody," said Bryan Lewis, NHL director of officiating. "There's no point having technology if you don't use it and our consensus is that we should do whatever we can technically to improve the game in the '90s.

"When they {the board of governors} tell us to do it, we'll find the best way, iron out the kinks and take NHL officiating into the 1990s."

The issue of officiating goes beyond the use of instant replays to decide goals. Hockey is the most difficult sport to officiate and young referees and linesmen with ability are in short supply.

"We've talked about altering the positioning of officials, of putting a spotter in the press box," Lewis said. "We don't want to put our head in the sand and say we have the best system. We may have, but we want to try different systems. We're on top of it and we're prepared to go with the best system technically."

"It's remarkable how they can be so good," Sinden said. "The one thing we should be working hard at is to get a better way of officiating the game. We need more eyes working on certain calls or electronic help. Many of these infractions are just missed.

"I don't think the game has changed at all. We see things on video replay that aren't seen on the ice. Like it or not, officiating plays a huge part in a lot of games and I think we need to find a better way."

O'Neill thinks instant replays have value in the area of judging disputed goals, but he opposes further intrusion into the game.

"The mechanics of it are so difficult," O'Neill said. "We don't have the all-consuming TV coverage of football and there is a need for uniformity. We average 7 1/2 goals a game, or about 16,000 a year, and there are maybe 10 major disputes.

"They are important and if they happen in the playoffs, they are especially glaring. But even then, 60 percent or more the official is right. And even with instant replay, there are no guarantees. I'm a baseball fan and if I were in baseball, I wouldn't want instant replays at all. I wouldn't want anybody taking away my right to yell at the umpire." Keeping the Gloves On

O'Neill and other old-timers are reluctant to see fighting go from the game, because they consider it a valuable outlet for frustration that might otherwise result in an escalation of stick swinging. But it seems likely that fighting as an intimidation factor is on the way out.

"If fighting has been a tactic, it will go," Sinden said. "Intimidation as a tactic is becoming less and less a factor and the two teams in the Stanley Cup finals {Boston and Edmonton} probably use it as little as any team in the league.

"A real physical team that does a lot of body checking can be intimidating, but I mean intimidation beyond the rules. It just has no place anymore."

A few players draw most of the fighting penalties and Ziegler said: "Yes, it's happening and it shouldn't. We'll be focusing on it. It's the height of stupidity for two guys to go out on the ice, when nothing has happened, and drop their gloves and fight. There's no justification for it."

"Tradition seems to outrank progressiveness in things that come up in our game," Poile said. "The game has been at an entertaining level for a lot of years, and to tinker in dramatic form, you have to be careful. But we've cut down on the use of the stick and there will continue to be a reduction in fighting."

An area of considerable dispute is the supply of players for upcoming expansion and how much competitive balance will be affected if the collective bargaining in 1992 should result in increased free agency.

"If you go to free agency, all the best players will end up in New York, Detroit or Los Angeles," Sather said. "The Canadian teams don't have the TV revenues and to be competitive we already have to pay 20 percent more because of the difference in the dollar.

"Taxes in Canada are getting close to Sweden and you can't charge the people more. The more success you get, the more the players want, and it becomes tougher to turn a profit."

"Free agency in a professional sport will always be a problem," O'Neill said. "It's a fact of life. Obviously, the more liberal you are in your rules the more money it will cost you. I wouldn't like to suggest where we will go. It's too delicate a subject."Shrinking Talent Pool

Some NHL people were disturbed by a Canadian Amateur Hockey Association report that registration of Canadian youngsters had dropped 10 percent in the last decade, to slightly more than 400,000. That was 100,000 below the 1988 registration figures of the Canadian Soccer Association.

Plain and simple, more and more families can't afford the high cost of hockey. As a result, the talent pool will be smaller when the NHL's needs become greater because of upcoming expansion.

"Player supply has always been a problem," Sinden said. "When we expanded in 1979, I was against it for that reason. There's a point where you affect the skill level of the game. They're talking 28 teams and my sense is that it will be too many, strictly in terms of player supply."

"The supply of players is crucial," O'Neill said. "There is a problem developing players to expand our base. We expect to have three more teams by 1993 and by the time we digest that, who knows where we'll stand? You have to consider new teams and their competitive posture. Normally, when they first come in that's not the case."

"Both the International League and American League are highly competitive and have somewhere in the range of 30 or 40 players with a high probability of being able to play in the next expansion," said Bill Torrey, general manager of the New York Islanders and chairman of the NHL player availability committee.

"Also, the number of unsigned draft choices presently on reserve lists is a reservoir of potential talent that could be tapped. When you look at the overall competitive balance, I think the chances are better for a new team than when we came in {1972}."

"It's not just a question of players," Sather said. "Are there enough coaches and general managers around? We've had nine management changes this year and that's a lot. There are more kids playing hockey in the U.S. and a lot of guys from Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union are coming. I think they'll find enough to stock the new teams."

Of course, new teams mean more games and a consequent need for more officials. That could become the most critical problem of all.

EXPANSION League could be enlarged by as many as seven teams. A European division is a possibility.

TECHNOLOGY Instant replay to decide questionable goals could be adopted. Pay-per-view will expand the number of televised games.

ARENAS Modern arenas with skyboxes and premium seating will replace historic buildings and boost club revenue.

RULES CHANGES Measures to eliminate fighting and checking from behind will be studied. The red line may be out as a way of restricting long passes. (Only part of graphic date was available.)