As the Washington Capitals flew from Hartford to Minneapolis last week, defenseman Rick Green nearly became ill. It was not airsickness; Green was reading a newspaper summary of the astronomical salaries obtained by baseball's free agents.

Green is a free agent, too, playing out his option with the Capitals. But in hockey a team signing a free agent must compensate his former club. After the Detroit Red Wings' experience in the Rogie Vachon-Dale McCourt case, the hockey market in free agents has shown about as much movement as a hibernating bear.

Nevertheless, Green has high hopes that things will work out in his favor come freedom time in June, assuming of course that the Capitals do not pay the price. The way Green has been playing, they had better meed it, or face picketing fans outside Capital Centre.

In October, when Green took a hard-line, pay-me-or-trade-me stance Washington hockey fans were more prepared to celebrate Green's departure than to protest it. But a funny (at least a lot of folks are smiling) thing has happened to Green in the last three months. He has become an outstanding defenseman.

A year ago, Green was rarely chosen to start a game, because the announcement of his name incited a babble of discontent. The statistics (minus 43 at season's end) were unflatering and only the attentions of NHL scouts kept Green's ego a few inches above his garter belt.

Now Green's introduction brings sincere applause. Hecklers are quickly shouted down. He is one of the key factors in the Capitals' rise to respectability, and his competence is too obvious for even the most biased to ignore.

The Professional Hockey Writers Association has filed its ballots for the NHL All-Star Game in Detroit Feb. 5 and, if the voters ignore their biases, they will make Green the first elected Capital representative. The writers will choose four defensemen for the Campbell Conference team, and only Barry Beck of the New York Rangers and Jim Watson of Philadelphia have an edge on Green.

"I do the best I can do," Green said. "A chance to play in the All-Star Game would be a great thrill for me, but I don't think of it. I just want to help the team. We're gaining respect around the league and teams are becoming more cautious, where they had been doing things against us they wouldn't do against others.

"This is my fourth year here and it wasn't so great for the first few. By the time we're really well-respected around the league, it will be a great feeling for us."

Green realizes he may not be in Washington when such respect is finally accorded. He also knows his free-agent ploy is a gamble, but it now seems far more tenable than when he first revealed it.

"The way things are now all the good players will be picked up no matter what," Green said. "I like to consider myself one of the better players. In June, if things don't work out here, they'll work out elsewhere."

As the Capitals' player representative, Green agreed to a renewal of the current compensation setup during the June meetings in Nassau. He claims, however, that changes will be made.

"We'd still be sitting down in Nassau talking if we hadn't compromised," Green said. "We couldn't satisfy the owners or us. But we're trying to work for a change and when we meet in February, it will be one of the big issues. We can terminate the players' agreement with two years' notice and I have a feeling this will come about. We have to get something a little better for free agents."

Green's play has been a lot better this season and in the last five games he has been a dominant defensive figure, posting a plus-five performance rating. The plus-minus has been an item in dispute, because it works against defensemen continually assigned difficult situations, so Green is reluctant to celebrate his recent surge. It is apparent, however, that one big plus has been the curtailment of risky stickhandling in his own end.

"The last few I've been stepping on the ice when we're scoring instead of when the other team's scoring," Green said. "I'm glad it's not going up in minutes like last year.

"I always try to run the puck up to the forwards when I can and right now I'm trying to make plays quickly to guys who are open. That gets us out of trouble. Sometimes, I get a little more room, so I take more time in our end zone and wheel a little bit more. I don't want to get caught up ice, though."

One reason fans have been reluctant to embrace Green as a hero is his lack of charisma. It is due, in part, to his ability to do things so easily, where others must expend greater, more discernible effort.

"It's always been my appearance not to show emotion," Green said. "It's not like that deep down. There's a lot going on inside that's not apparent in my expression of style. People don't seem to realize I'm going hard as I can go. I keep a lot of it inside."

He opened up when his own value was at stake, however, and now it seems worth it.

The Capitals entertain Vancouver tonight at 8 p.m. as they reach the halfway point of the season . . . Defenseman Brent Tremblay (back trouble) and winger Atero Lehtonen (flu) missed yesterday's practice . . . Leif Svensson, forced out of the Dynamo game Tuesday with a groin pull, will play tonight . . . Yvon Labre, recuperating from his knee operation, has accelerated his skating and could play by mid-February.