The limousine had already whisked Wayne Gretzky to three Washington television stations in an hour and a half. Camera crews awaited him inside and out. "What's this," he said, climbing out into the glare. " 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'? A movie premiere?"

But it was growing late, 7:15 Tuesday evening, and the Edmonton Oilers' star had to be across town for a live half-hour show at 7:30. The television guy was fretting in the back seat; the public relations guy was reassuring him and dialing a number--a live radio call-in show.

The PR guy handed the receiver to Gretzky. "Don't buy, sell," Gretzky said.

The limo arrived for the show, and there was Gretzky huddled in the front seat, talking serenely to Ken Beatrice while the cameras were whirring and the PR guy was tugging at his sleeve. It was 7:27. Gretzky raised a finger as if to say, one minute, one more question. He can't cut anyone off.

Two minutes later, he was in his seat before the cameras, as fresh as the anchor man was frazzled. Gretzky is quick on his feet in more ways than one.

These days, he says, his life is "not out of my hands but it's not in my hands either, if you know what I mean. It's hard to explain."

The first thing you notice is the peach fuzz. The kid is after all just a kid, although you wouldn't know it from his composure. He may be the most self-possessed 20-year-old on the planet. "When I was 17, I was living with men 35," he said. "You learn to grow up quickly."

He turned pro when he was 17, but he made his "pro debut" when he was 11. "What it was, was a WHA game where they had kids shooting between periods. He (the goalie) stopped it. It hit his toe and went off the post. I remember thinking, 'This is a bad way to start a career.' "

Once a long time ago, his father, whom Gretzky says is the most indispensable person in his life, taught him that he is special, was going to be special, and was going to have to act special. "It was close to that," Gretzky said, softly, the way he says everything. "He used to tell me when I was 7 and would go to practice, 'Have fun but don't embarrass yourself. People will be watching.' "

Including teammates. Sometimes, being special means knowing when to be just one of the guys. So when he was given a choice between taking the team bus or a rented limo, he took the bus.

He gave his first interview when he was 9. "I've got the paper at home," he said. "The headline says, 'Hull, Richard, Howe and Gretzky.' That was lots of pressure."

This is nothing. "I get a lot of attention," he said. "But it's nothing compared to what Reggie Jackson goes through. I can't imagine what he goes through."

Baseball players have the life, he says, nice and relaxed. He would have loved to have been one. Now he collects autographed bats. "I've got Reggie's bat at home," he said. When someone offered him a ball signed by Hank Aaron, he said, "Oh, no, I can't take yours."

The greatest hockey player in the world is more than a bit starstruck. He admits to getting goose bumps around his hero, Gordie Howe.

"Who else gives you goose bumps?" he was asked.

"You mean aside from my girlfriend?" he said.

When he was young, his father went to all his games. "I knew exactly where he sat," he said. "I never felt any emptiness." When he turned pro, his father could no longer come to all the games. "Since I met Vickie (Moss), I have that feeling with her. It's nice to know you have somebody behind you no matter what."

Of course, they are hardly alone. "He is what Pavarotti is to opera," said Peter Pocklington, owner of the Oilers. Awhile back, Pocklington gave Gretzky a Ferrari as a token of his esteem, but Gretzky won't drive it at home because all his brothers can't fit in it. Now, Pocklington is renegotiating Gretzky's nine-year contract (with two six-year options).

Published reports say the new deal will pay Gretzky $650,000 a year plus bonuses that could bring it to $1 million if the Oilers win the Stanley Cup. "I guess it's in the ballpark," Pocklington said. "It's within shooting distance. It'll be signed on Friday. I'm going East to do it. Most of the major items were agreed to months ago . . . we just have to do a bit of polishing."

Gretzky's agent, Gus Badali, said the deal may need "more than polishing. Hopefully, we can agree on Friday but it's not going to be easy."

It should tell you something about Gretzky, who in 45 NHL games has a record 55 goals and 67 assists for 122 points, that he does not want individual bonuses in the contract. "That's a lot of pressure," he said. "Team bonuses are more important."

All day long, perhaps all his life, Gretzky has been saying the same things, the right things: how one man can't do it alone, how it takes 19 guys to win the Stanley Cup, how he's just like everyone else. Why, he even stole a chocolate bar once when he was 8.

That was before his friend John Herbert nicknamed him The Great Wayne Gretzky at age 10. "I was talking to him and he said, 'I gave you that name,' " Gretzky said. "I said, 'Yeah, great.' "

There's no temptation to make it legal? "I'm happy with Wayne," he said.