"I called for his head three weeks ago," said a disembodied voice in the night, "and I call for it again now."

"I'm sick of hearing about injuries from Gary Green," said a second irate caller.

"Don Cherry has been spoken to," said a third.

"Hmmm," said Gary Green, the talk of the talk show. "The rumor in New York is Herb Brooks."

The phone lines were buzzing, and the fans were cursing, after the Capitals' 6-4 loss to Quebec Wednesday night. But Green didn't have to listen to know what was being said.

"Let me guess," he said, "I'm overcoaching again. Does this city want a coach that simply opens the door and says 'skate'? If they do, they're not going to get it from me. I'm a coach, not a puppet."

But right now, Green just can't seem to pull the right strings, and the Caps, who are once again struggling to reach the playoffs, seem strung out.

"We shouldn't be in this position (fighting for the 16th playoff spot), we just shouldn't be," he said. "I wish I had a crystal ball at the beginning of the season. If anyone had ever told me that I would me that I would be having second doubts about our goaltending going into the last 10 games of the season, I'd have said they were crazy. It was the one big improvement we made in the summer, getting one of the top four goaltenders in the league. We figured it would put us in the playoffs instead of fighting to make the playoffs . . ."

His voice, hoarse from a cold he has had for a month, trails off. He sits in the stands at Fort Dupont, looking for answers to some of the question marks skating on the ice below and providing some about himself.

Sometimes, now, he feels like the oldest coach in the league, 40 years older than he was when he took the job in November 1979 at age 26. He looks a bit stouter, too. He smiles pats his stomach. "It's the bulletproof vest," he said.

He has the sense of humor and the tired look of the 2,000-year-old man. You don't sleep much if you keep getting up to call sports phone for the West Coast scores. Besides, he said, "you can sleep when you're dead."

Hockey is the eptimore of the work ethic -- mucking, digging and grinding in the corners -- and Green is the epitome of hockey. He believes in work the way some believe in reincarnation. "Last night, I said to the players, 'I know your frustrated, I know you feel like, "What do we have to do to buy a goal?" But if you think you're going to score by giving up and stop work, you'll never get a break. You've got to spit in its eye and fight like a bitch, and go at the thing again.'"

If you are a coach, and you can't shoot, or skate, or stop the puck, and you believe in work you do as Green does. You work hard on game plans, prescout opponents, juggle lines and get accused of overcoaching.

"I don't know what overcoaching is," he said. "Well, I guess what they're saying, is 'Why does he work so hard? Why does he run off to Detroit to see Quebec play a hockey game?' I felt it would help. A month ago, they were saying, 'Why does he change around the line so much?' There was no alternative.

"We started the year with a first line of Paul Mulvey, Ryan Walter and Mike Gartner. Mulvey didn't perform and hasn't performed and that's evident to everyone in Washington that calls in a talk show."

That, Green says, plus the Caps' annual injury spree -- including Rolf Edberg's broken jaw -- "set up a chain of events" that rearranged the Caps lines as often as Bloomingdale's rearranges its windows. "Do people not understand that?" he said.

Green says he knows the fans' frustration; you can hear it in his voice. "I'd love to leave my lines together for a year. But I can't have a picture of Paul Mulvey in a pair of empty skates going up and down the ice."

Perhaps, it was suggested, he hs overdone it sometimes in his zeal to show that he was more than a boy wonder: "If I was 40 years old, I don't think I'd do it any different."

General Manager Max McNab, who says he is satisfied with Green's performance, said, "Some of the hardest parts in his NHL career have come through on-the-job training. He didn't have the experience as an assistant. He had to absorb a lot first-hand. If he feels most comfortable pre-scouting teams himself, he knows best. Maybe two years down the road, when he completes his knowledge of the oppositions, he may not have to."

Green is the type of guy who tries "to put Gary Green over there" -- he points down the bench -- and analyze hismelf at a distance. His analysis now: "My responsibility is this team and its performance wherever we are. I accept that. I'm not going to use a cop-out, it's this guy's fault or that guy's fault, or it's Max's fault, or Roger's fault. Is it my fault? I'm the coach. Is it my fault Mike Palmateer didn't stop the puck Wednesday night? I guess so. I can't stop the puck, but I put him in the net.

"If you're not running away with the league in first place, you can do a better job. I tell my players to look in the mirror every single day and ask, 'Are you happy with your performance?' Can I say I tried as hard as I can?

"I don't have any problem looking in the mirror in the morning."