To grow or not to grow -- and if so, by how much -- is the main question to be addressed as the National Hockey League Board of Governors begins five days of meetings today in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Expansion is the main focus and, although most governors may agree on some general themes, "everyone will have a slightly different agenda," according to Washington Capitals General Manager David Poile. He will be joined by owner Abe Pollin and team president Dick Patrick.

The differences among current teams parallel the differences in the eight expansion applicants still in the running. None seems to be perfect, the main reason there is uncertainty about whether the league will expand at all. Applicants will make presentations Wednesday and Thursday. If there is a vote and then an announcement, it probably will happen Thursday or Friday.

Some applicants have financing, but bad arena situations. Some have great hockey tradition but won't help the league broaden its appeal in the United States, which is essential if the NHL is ever to have another U.S. network television contract. Some are in great locations but don't appear to have the money or ideal arena situations.

"We've made it difficult to enter this league," said Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, a member of the Franchise and Market Analysis Committee, which has been referred to as the expansion committee. "The reason for that is a good one: To make sure that when a team comes in they will be strong enough to stay."

Orginally the NHL received 11 applications for franchises, and officials were giddy that so many wanted to join their club, especially because new teams must deliver $50 million eight months before they play a game. But reality -- and a recession -- make the addition of only one or two teams more likely.

The league would like to expand from its 21 teams to 28 by the year 2000. San Jose, a franchise that evolved out of the Gund brothers' threats to move the financially ailing Minnesota North Stars, will begin play next season. Any franchises awarded this week would begin play no sooner than 1992.

The cities still in the discussion are Anaheim, Calif.; San Diego; Miami; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Tampa; Seattle; Ottawa; and Hamilton, Ont. The three that dropped out are significant.

Milwaukee would have been a clear favorite, but Lloyd Petit, who owns the IHL Milwaukee Admirals and helped build the city's Bradley Center, pulled out. He said the investment was unsound, in part because it would take too long to become competitive. Houston, which has the 10th-largest TV market in the United States, pulled out last week but may be interested in a year or so.

The current owners are facing rapidly escalating salaries. They stand to make about $2 million from each new franchise, but as McNall said, "we don't want them coming back in our laps."

Committee members have visited sites and conducted several sets of interviews. The group will not make a recommendation but simply list the pluses and minuses of each applicant. But there are plenty of heavy hitters on the committee, co-chaired by NHL President John Ziegler and Chicago owner Bill Wirtz, arguably the most influential owner in the league.

They might be willing to bring in a team that doesn't meet all their criteria -- an 18,000-seat arena with a favorable lease and income from concessions, parking and skyboxes; season tickets sales of $9 million; a $5 million letter of credit -- but they will probably want the full induction fee.

Currently, there is a 2-to-1 ratio of American teams to Canadian teams, and many north of the border want that ratio maintained.

On the other hand, McNall and Pat Quinn, president of the Vancouver Canucks, would like the league to expand to the West Coast. "It will help with the travel and help with the identity of the West in hockey," Quinn said.